Human Cost of Border-Protection Policies High, Immigrant Advocates Reveal

Immigrant advocates gather at Chicano Park in San Diego, California, on Tuesday, the 25th anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper. The border policy fortified U.S.-Mexico border fencing and Border Patrol personnel, driving immigrants eastward into dangerous terrain. (Bianca Bruno / CNS)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – Twenty-five years after “Operation Gatekeeper” changed the way immigration officials policed the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, immigrant advocates called for new policies Tuesday to curb the loss of life along the border.

Introduced on Oct. 1, 1994, the border policy included ramped-up staffing and supplemented border infrastructure and fencing – including building much of the fence that exists currently and is slated to or has already been replaced under the Trump administration.

The increased infrastructure and presence of Customs and Border Protection agents starting at the Pacific Ocean and heading east were supposed to deter immigrants from crossing at all. Instead, thousands of immigrants try to cross the border in more dangerous rural terrain including mountains and deserts.

The result: the nonprofit group Border Angels estimates 10,000 people have died while attempting to cross in deserts and mountains since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994.

Official figures by U.S. Border Patrol show 283 people died along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018 alone. The same data shows while deaths have decreased in the San Diego border sector, they’ve increased in the deserts in Arizona and Texas.

Immigrant advocates, including those with the Southern Border Communities Coalition, called on the federal government Tuesday to adapt a “New Border Vision” framework of worldwide best practices on immigration.

The group has met with political candidates – including presidential candidates – ahead of the 2020 election to advocate for the implementation of its recommendations.

Stephanie Ortiz with Aguilas Del Desierto, a search-and-rescue nonprofit which looks for missing people in deserts and mountains wore the highlighter-yellow shirt rescuers wear when on missions Tuesday morning.

Ortiz said the search-and-rescue missions by her group are more recovery missions, as more than 70% of the cases they take on involve recovering the remains of people who have died.

Photos displayed by the group Tuesday included images of the dead, skulls and bones and photos of the baseball-sized broken blisters on the bottoms of the feet of a man rescued by the group.

Ortiz said her uncle and his cousin died in 2009 while attempting to cross the desert. Her father recovered their badly decomposed skeletal remains five months after they went missing.

Ortiz said Operation Gatekeeper and subsequent immigration policies “normalizes the psychological and physical violence” on immigrants.

“We have an obligation to ask, and the U.S. government to respond and be accountable for, the humanitarian crisis taking place along the border by rejecting policies that violate human lives. We deserve to live in a dignified way and not be asked to walk along countless graveyards along the U.S.-Mexico border to find our relatives,” Ortiz said.

Jenn Budd, a former senior Border Patrol agent who worked in intelligence with the San Diego Sector, entered the profession in November 1995 before any walls had been built.

Budd said her first detention involved a family which included grandparents, parents and young kids.

“I thought to myself: ‘Where are the narcotics? Where are the weapons I was told these groups would have when they crossed the border that I was supposed to be defending the United States from?’” Budd said.

After six years on duty, Budd said she resigned “out of protest” over Customs and Border Protection’s failure to prevent deaths.

“Every day that wall went up, I noticed the number of deaths in Campo went up.  It wasn’t unusual to occasionally come across a dead body,” Budd said.

Budd said when immigrant death tolls climbed, agents were ordered not to go north of Interstate 94 because that’s where most of the bodies were found.

“Instead of trying to keep people from dying, they tried to keep the fact that they were dying hidden from the public,” Budd said.

Customs and Border Protection did not immediately return a request for comment.

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