25 Years Later, Operation Gatekeeper’s Legacy is One Best Left Behind

By Vicki B. Gaubeca

Border Patrol checkpoints — far from the actual border — that threaten the civil liberties of millions and lead to the detention of U.S. citizens

Unconstitutional, illegal cash grabs to build massive, senseless border walls, taking money away from  schools and daycare programs for children of military, with complete disregard to the impact on wildlife, people or local communities

Unaccountable border agents who act like a paramilitary force, and treat migrant children and families like like a threat, rather than vulnerable people seeking protection and safety.

While many of these blunt-force enforcement tactics have gained notoriety under the Trump administration, all of them have their roots in Operation Gatekeeper, a program which began 25 years ago this October 1.

Operation Gatekeeper marks the inception of federal government’s national strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence’ along the southern border. It was rolled out with a massive expansion of border walls, checkpoints up to 100 miles north of the international border line, and thousands of new border agents, onboarded without thorough vetting, contributing to more corruption and abuse. It went into effect in San Diego County on October 1, 1994, and then spread like a cancer to Brownsville, Texas, soon covering everything else in between.

Southern border communities are some of the most vibrant, diverse and dynamic in our country, but policies like Operation Gatekeeper have turned our peaceful, thriving region into a pawn by politicians from both parties—who care more about political gain than the well-being of our region—leaving a trail of death and destruction 25 years after it was launched.

Trump has simply recycled and ramped up the same worn-out formula with his promises to build a wall along the entire southern border in an effort to block the country from those seeking protection and our neighbors to the south—and have Mexico pay for it. 

Ever since Gatekeeper was launched by the Clinton Administration 25 years ago, it has exposed our communities to a deadly legacy. So far, over 7,000 people have lost their lives attempting to cross remote or harsh terrain at the southern border, and experts agree the government’s tally is an undercount. Researchers estimate that thousands more have disappeared in the deserts, rivers and mountains of the southern border region. By design, Gatekeeper weaponized nature against those seeking a better life and safety. 

Fast-forward 25 years later and it’s clear that today’s enforcement-only policies have their roots in Operation Gatekeeper. From putting children in cages indefinitely, to massive funding of unaccountable agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that operate under a culture of impunity, to the deaths of at least six children in Border Patrol custody this year alone, to Trump robbing military families to pay for his wasteful wall, these policies found their inspiration in Gatekeeper. 

As we approach the 25th anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper, we border residents say, enough is enough. We have suffered loss, death, and abuse due to border policies that have cast aside human rights, criminalized migrants and engaged in deadly and unaccountable border enforcement, undermining public safety for all.

We know our communities best—and we know what we want.  For the last few months we have been working tirelessly to challenge the country to rethink our approach to border policy. We have put forward A New Border Vision, one that expands public safety, protects human rights, and welcomes people at our borders.  

On the 25th anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper, we urge elected officials, community leaders and the 2020 presidential candidates to develop policies that leave behind the deadly militarization of Operation Gatekeeper for a vision of what well-functioning borders can be when we uphold our national values and global best practices.

Vicki B. Gaubeca is the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.


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