Challenge to Operation Gatekeeper Heard Before Inter-American Commission

WASHINGTON D.C. – – At a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights tomorrow, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation will present arguments about the sharp rise in migrant deaths along the southwest U.S. border. Both organizations asked the Commission in 1999 to find that the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s use of a migrant redirection strategy is abusive and a risk to human life.

According to the Mexican government, Operation Gatekeeper — the strategy of “redirecting” undocumented foot traffic away from border cities and into ever more remote and punishing places — resulted in 350 migrant deaths so far this year. The deaths continue to mount at the rate of one a day, mostly from dehydration and heat stroke.

“It is not a question of whether we have a right to control the border,” said the Managing Attorney of the ACLU of San Diego, Jordan Budd, who will be arguing the case. “But all that Gatekeeper has done, at an enormous cost in lives, is to give the appearance of a border under control.”

Operation Gatekeeper pushed illegal entrants steadily eastward from San Diego and into the mountains and deserts. The theory was that raising the physical risks would eventually deter migrants. As a recent General Accounting Office report concluded, it did not. Although the goal of shifting illegal entries away from urban areas has been achieved, that has not kept many migrants from risking death by trying to cross the mountains, deserts and waterways, which straddle the U.S.-Mexico border.

In their arguments, the ACLU and CRLAF will ask the Commission to examine the current strategy and recommend to the U.S. government that it redesign its border enforcement policy so as to minimize the risk to life.

The ACLU’s and CRALF’s 1999 petition to the Commission states that the U.S. has abused its right to control the border by resorting to a strategy that maximizes the risk to life of people who cross the border illegally in search of work, guaranteeing that hundreds of them will die, year after year.

California was the testing ground for Gatekeeper. It has now been extended into Yuma, Arizona. According to the Border Patrol, the 140-mile San Diego to Yuma stretch of the border is the most dangerous. The Border Patrol’s El Centro sector, which covers California’s Imperial desert, is the deadliest. In its fiscal year 2001, the Border Patrol reported 88 deaths in that sector alone, compared with 77 the previous year, despite a 27 percent drop in apprehensions and redoubled search and rescue efforts.

“If the U.S. chooses to seal the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico, it has every right to do so,” said Claudia Smith, Border Project director for the CRLAF. “But it should not keep funneling migrants to their deaths as an alternative.”

Professor William Aceves, an international human rights lawyer, and professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego will join Budd and Smith in arguing the case. Because Commission hearings are closed to the public, a Washington news conference has been scheduled to take place at noon tomorrow at the ACLU’s Washington office.

For more information on Operation Gatekeeper and its counterparts in Arizona and Texas, please visit the bilingual website,