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On 25th anniversary, Operation Gatekeeper blamed for border deaths, dehumanization of migrants

Marking the 25th anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper, a coalition of migrant advocacy groups gathered at Chicano Park Tuesday to condemn the border enforcement campaign as one of dehumanization and death.

Notably absent was Eli Ortiz.

The night before, Ortiz had set out from San Diego with a team of volunteers on a combined rescue-recovery mission to the Arizona desert. An unauthorized immigrant had called in distress, saying he couldn’t walk any farther. The man’s father, who’d crossed illegally with him, had already perished on the journey.

The Águilas del Desierto — Eagles of the Desert — are hoping they only have to recover one body on this trip, not two.

“Stories like these are far too common,” Ortiz’s daughter, Stephanie Ortiz, said during a news conference held by the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

Harsh border policies, beginning with Operation Gatekeeper, are largely to blame, the coalition said.

Operation Gatekeeper launched Oct. 1, 1994, with much fanfare from the federal government. The goal was to stem the tide of unauthorized border crossings in San Diego’s urban areas and force migrants still willing to make the journey deeper into the wilderness areas.

The strategy called for the deployment of additional Border Patrol agents to stand sentry in highly visible areas, deterring illegal entry. The sector was also infused with new technology, including seismic sensors, radios and fingerprint identification.

At the time, San Diego had been the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, with many migrants headed to Los Angeles. But apprehensions dropped dramatically in the years following Gatekeeper — from more than 524,000 in fiscal 1995 to about 38,500 last year.

The chaos of hundreds to thousands of people a day rushing into San Diego had been calmed, border authorities said. Residents who lived in neighborhoods along the border told local officials that they felt safer.

Hailed a success by the government, parts of the campaign spread to other border regions.

Stephanie Ortiz blames Gatekeeper for killing her uncle and his cousin.

Her father was the one who searched relentlessly for their remains in the Arizona desert in 2009, finally discovering their bodies on a remote Arizona military base five months after they went missing. It’s what prompted Eli Ortiz to form Águilas del Desierto, to rescue and recover migrants pushed to cross in inhospitable environments.

At least 8,300 migrants have died along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1998, and some estimates put the toll at thousands greater.

“We have an obligation to ask, and the U.S. government to respond, to the humanitarian crisis taking place along the border by rejecting policies that violate human rights,” she said Tuesday.

Jenn Budd witnessed Gatekeeper from a different lens, that of a Border Patrol agent hired during the ramp-up in 1995. She quickly grew disillusioned with what she saw and quit six years into her career. She’s become an outspoken critic of the Border Patrol since.

Her first apprehension was a family, complete with children and grandparents.

“I thought, ‘Where are the narcotics, where are the weapons I was told these groups would have that I’m supposed to be defending us from?’”

She saw as the dusty and rugged border region patrolled by Campo station changed, with Gatekeeper and continued construction of a border fence shifting migrants farther east into the mountains and desert. The region lost its sense of a cross-border community, she said. And the body count grew.

“They knew what they were doing,” Budd said of Gatekeeper’s architects.

She added: “I contributed to it. For that I am forever ashamed.”

The coalition is using Gatekeeper’s anniversary to call for a new vision on the border, one based on dignity and respect that upholds human rights. It includes decriminalization of migration, keeping families together and turning the border into a welcoming system rather than one that resists entry, according to the proposal.

Lillian Serrano, chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, said the country’s current immigration policies “have no reflection for the values we have here at the border.”

“It’s about time the federal government listens to our border communities,” Serrano said. “We need a new vision.”

Kristina Davis
The San Diego Union-Tribune

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