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Tenth Anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper
Ni Una Muerte Mas

Roberto Martinez
San Diego, California

    Roberto L. Martinez
    Roberto L. Martinez. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

The following was presented at a University of San Diego forum on Operation Gatekeeper, October 2, 2004.

The Human Cost Of Immigration Continues To Climb

Three weeks ago the nation stopped to remember and reflect on that terrible day on September 1, 2001, when 3,000 Americans perished at the hands of terrorists, an act that touched us all. Today, people stand at “ground zero” in New York and ask, “How could this have happened?”

This weekend we are gathering here to remember the 3,000 people who have died crossing the U.S./Mexico border over the last ten years. Tomorrow, as we stand in silent prayer at the border fence -- at our own “ground zero”, I’m sure some of us will be asking the same question, “How could this have happened?” Even more importantly -- “Why does it continue to happen today?” Every day, at least two people, sometimes more, die crossing somewhere along the border.

Both (Mexican) President Fox and (U.S.) President Bush keep stating that there must be a “safe and orderly” border. How do you create order out of chaos? And, how can there be a “safe” border when the objective of these Border Patrol operations in California, Arizona and Texas, is to force the flow of migrants into the deserts and mountains along the border?

Operation Gatekeeper is not just responsible for the deaths on the California border, but also on the Arizona border -- more specifically, in the Sonoran desert. We need to be clear that these operations are totally ineffective in controlling illegal immigration. If anything, they have only served to create lethal death traps for the hundreds of unsuspecting men, women and children who are forced to cross through the mountains and deserts of California and Arizona because of Operation Gatekeeper.

In my interviews with migrants from Tijuana to Tecate, from Mexicali, and on to Sasabe and Altar along the Arizona border, the migrants are steadfast and determined in their objective and are ready and willing to risk everything to work in the U.S. The possibility of dying is not a deterrent because their need to feed their families is stronger than their fear of death.

My hope and prayer this weekend is that we will not just ask ourselves the question, how could this happen, but what are we going to do about it? What can we do that has not already been tried? We cannot just stand by and watch the death toll double to 6,000 over the next ten years. That is totally unacceptable. Something has to change.

No more deaths, and no more rhetoric and empty promises from Washington, D.C.

Even though it may sound simplistic, one of the more immediate solutions to the deaths on the border is to abolish Operation Gatekeeper and the other three (border operations) and watch how fast the deaths decline.

And I believe another solution is to take this issue to a higher level. I know Victor Clark, Enrique Morones and I have been talking about this for some time. We need to explore the possibility of inviting international human rights organizations or courts to intervene in our behalf. I know this has already been tried with the Organization of American States (OAS). Even though that effort failed, we must continue to pursue other international options.

Ni Una Muerte Mas

If we place Operation Gatekeeper within its historical context, it is but one more dark chapter in the 150-year legacy of the U.S./Mexico border.

After ten years of monitoring Operation Gatekeeper, and all its attending human rights abuses, I have arrived at three major conclusions:

  • That it has been a colossal failure in controlling illegal immigration.
  • It has failed to address the social, political and economic realities of Latin America. In other words, the root causes of immigration, and
  • It has created the worst human rights disaster in recent border history. Yet the people keep coming.

They keep coming in the face of increased government militarization of the border and enforcement. They keep coming in the face of total government indifference to the mounting deaths of the border. Operation Gatekeeper has pushed the death toll in the Arizona desert to 220 this year.

They keep coming because the need to feed their families is stronger than their fear of death. A case in point, and I’m sure we have all heard or read about horror stories from one end of the border to the other. As reported extensively in the Mexican media, on September 23rd, just two weeks ago, six migrants were attempting to swim across the Rio Grande River near Eagle Pass Texas. There were three women and three men. Actually, one of the women was a 16-year-old girl, daughter of the older woman. And one of the men was an 11-year-old boy. When they attempted to swim ashore on the U.S. side of the river, there were several Border Patrol agents waiting there. The agents told them they had to go back, but the women refused because they were exhausted from fighting the current. The agents, according to the husband of the older woman, then began throwing rocks at them, so the women and the men began swimming back to the other side. However, the women, including the 16-year-old girl, lost their fight against the current and drowned. The men and the boy made it back safely to the other side.

The Border Patrol agents never lifted a hand to save the women. One report said that 19 migrants have drowned in that same area of the river over the last three months. Yet, no attempt has been made to train agents on how to rescue people there.

This was not an isolated incident. It has been repeated dozens of times over the last ten years in Texas, Arizona, and California. Except for the feeble attempts at rescuing migrants in the deserts and mountains of California and Arizona, the people keep coming and they keep dying.

What is the solution? That’s why we are here this weekend -- to hear from you, not just for you to hear from us. We will have an opportunity at the end of the program to discuss recommendations and solutions.

About the author: Roberto L. Martinez is retired and a past director of director of the U.S. / Mexico Border Program and Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project of the American Friends Service Committee. He is still active in immigrant rights and human rights.

Published in In Motion Magazine - February 1, 2005

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