Operation Gatekeeper

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Operation Gatekeeper

Operation Gatekeeper is the name of the U.S. govern-ment’s enforcement strategy along the California section of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Launched by the Clinton administration on October 1, 1994, Gatekeeper is a “territorial denial,” or “prevention through deterrence,” strategy that attempts to thwart migrants and smugglers from entering the United States through the forward deployment of Border Patrol agents and the increased use of surveillance technologies and support infrastructure. (The previous strategy was to apprehend individuals after they crossed the border.) While initially limited to the sixty-six westernmost miles of the boundary (the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector), the operation eventually spread eastward to cover the entire California-Mexico border.

Operation Gatekeeper was devised as the centerpiece of a much larger national strategy, which has seen the implementation of similar operations across Arizona and Texas. This strategy has resulted in almost a tripling of the size of the Border Patrol (to approximately 11,000 agents in 2005), and a huge increase in surveillance equipment and enforcement infrastructure, including walls and fences.

The period during which Gatekeeper was first implemented was one of economic recession as well as anti-immigrant bravado by Republican politicians (and many of their Democratic counterparts) eager to curry favor with an increasingly anxious electorate receptive to scapegoating the poor, non-whites, and “illegals.” Both state actors and anti-immigrant groups created a sense of crisis regarding the social, political, and economic consequences of a southern boundary “out of control,” and of what many characterized as excessive levels of immigration. Thus, the early 1990s saw the outbreak of what would soon become a historically unparalleled level of official and public concern about the U.S. government’s ability, or the lack thereof, to police the U.S.-Mexico border and prevent unauthorized, or “illegal,” immigration from Mexico. The geographical epicenter of these concerns and efforts was California, whose southern boundary with Mexico, especially in the area of San Diego, was the gateway for the majority of unauthorized entries into the United States. It was in this context that California voters in November 1994, overwhelmingly approved Proposition 187, which sought to deny public education (from elementary to post-secondary levels), public social services, and public healthcare services (with the exception of emergencies) to unauthorized immigrants. It was in this context that the Clinton administration launched Gatekeeper—in large part to undercut any electoral advantages gained by the Republican championing of Proposition 187 and enhance the election prospects of Democrats (including his own re-election).

While such short-term factors were decisive in Gate-keeper’s implementation, the operation and the larger national strategy are manifestations of much longer-term processes involving what is in many ways a hardening of the social and territorial boundaries between U.S. citizens and those from without—especially “Third World” and nonwhite peoples. Thus, it is not surprising that much of the anti-immigrant sentiment that led to Gatekeeper scapegoated immigrants, especially “illegals,” for a whole host of social ills. And much of this sentiment was clearly racist in terms of its assumptions and notions of what the United States is and should be.

On a structural level, Gatekeeper and the larger border enforcement strategy it represents further institutionalize the social, political, and economic distance between a nationally defined “us” and “them.” In doing so, this strategy strengthens the bases that allow the United States to treat noncitizen “others” (especially of the “illegal” variety) in ways that would be deemed unjust or unfair if applied to U.S. nationals. Given the material consequences involved in determining where one can live and work in a world of profound socioeconomic inequality, such differential treatment furthers the construction of an unjust global order—one in which socioeconomic differences often correspond to conventional notions of race, and one that many have characterized as apartheid-like.

In terms of Gatekeeper’s direct effects, what is striking about the operation and the larger strategy are their marked failure to reduce unsanctioned immigration. One result of the enhanced boundary strategy has been to push border crossers away from urbanized areas and to curtail short-term and local unauthorized migrants. However, it does not appear to have significantly diminished the crossings by long-distance or long-term migrants. Research has consistently found that migrants have adapted to the new enforcement regime by relying increasingly on professional smugglers and utilizing new and more dangerous routes across the boundary. In addition, these individuals are staying in the United States longer than they might have previously. It has also led to increased human suffering: It is conservatively estimated that more than 3,000 unauthorized migrants died while trying to cross the international divide between 1995 and 2005. Given the vast and harsh terrain of the border region, the real number is undoubtedly higher. Further, despite much-touted efforts by U.S. authorities to address the resulting humanitarian crisis by warning would-be migrants of the dangers of crossing and increasing search-and-rescue missions, the growth of the death toll since 1995 has not slowed.

SEE ALSO Border Crossings and Human Rights; Border Patrol; Citizenship and “the Border”; Immigration to the United States.


Andreas, Peter. 2000. Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.

Nevins, Joseph. 2002. Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the“Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, New York: Routledge.

Joseph Nevins