On the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, soldiers from the Texas National Guard, in full military regalia, with helmets and weapons, stood next to armored jeeps. In front of them was coiling concertina wire placed before the sludgy, muddy Rio Grande. Behind them was the 20-foot border wall. Roving around the soldiers were the green-striped vehicles of the U.S. Border Patrol and the occasional Texas Department of Public Safety minivan. I was there on September 19, the precise date when Operation Hold the Line (originally called Operation Blockade) started 30 years before, in 1993. Sociologist Timothy Dunn, who I interview below, vividly describes this operation in his book Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation That Remade Immigration Enforcement.
In many ways, the National Guard soldiers “sitting on their Xs”—a term derived from the national border strategy of prevention through deterrence, which started the year after Hold the Line in 1994—was a juiced-up version of the same exact thing. They were blockading the border, something that the immigration and border apparatus has been doing now, as Dunn reflects below, for three decades. As Dunn explains, “It’s all seen as a normal or rational way to address unauthorized border crossing. However, I think this is all border enforcement fetishism that obscures what is really driving and affecting immigration.”
Dunn also wrote the seminal The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978–1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home. For me, both his books have been fundamental to my thinking about the border and to understanding how it has become what it is today. Now Dunn teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland.
I was just in El Paso and was able to go to the border and see firsthand how the enforcement is set up, and I couldn’t get out of my head your descriptions of how Operation Hold the Line began in Blockading the Border and Human Rights. Could you explain how this operation began and what it is?
Operation Blockade was devised by then El Paso Border Patrol sector chief Sylvestre Reyes as a new strategy he termed “prevention through deterrence.” It was designed to deter unauthorized crossings within the city—instead of apprehending them after they crossed, which had been the previous approach for decades. He amassed a show of force of nearly all of his 400 agents (at the time) along the 15-to 20-mile section of the Rio Grande border between El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez. They were posted in their vehicles along with new area lighting, frequent helicopter buzzing, repaired border fences, and other measures.
There had long been large-scale daily unauthorized daily crossings of Juarenses coming to work in El Paso, but this put a stop to that. It forced would-be crossers to cross outside the city in more rural areas—effectively pushing them out of sight. This led to a 70 percent initial drop in Border Patrol apprehensions in the sector for the early weeks and months. The strategy was extremely popular in El Paso, as it largely ended the previous practice of Border Patrol stopping Mexican Americans and other Hispanics for frequent and sometimes abusive immigration and drug enforcement questioning in the overwhelmingly Hispanic city—which had been successfully challenged in a December 1992 lawsuit led by local Bowie High School students and allies, leading to an injunction prohibiting the unit’s long-standing racial/ethnic profiling (and periodic verbal and physical abuses).
Also, Chief Reyes framed the measure as an anti-crime strategy, and some lower-level street crime did drop—though not by much more than it already had been in prior months.
How did the border militarization preceding Hold the Line help create the conditions for the operation to happen?
There had been a good deal of border militarization in the years leading up to Operation Blockade, particularly under the George H.W. Bush administration, under the legal rationale of drug enforcement, but it often had a spillover effect into also aiding immigration enforcement. This included deploying military equipment, military unit construction of expanded border barriers and fencing, as well as military aerial surveillance and some ground troop deployment. As the immigration issue took center stage politically in the early and mid-1990s (recall Proposition 187 in California), there were increasing calls for the use of the military in border immigration enforcement, including from some prominent congressional Democrats.
In some ways, Operation Blockade, and the subsequent national Border Patrol strategy based on it, were an alternative to this growing call for more explicit militarization. It basically was the Border Patrol (and its INS parent agency) making a claim that expanded resources for border enforcement should be given to them instead to do the job—with a more limited military support. However, as the new strategy came to be implemented over time, the role of the military expanded, and by the early 2000s there was an explicit border immigration enforcement role for the military justified as countering “transnational criminal organizations” involved in cross-border smuggling (including of immigrants).
Were there other operations similar to Hold the Line along the border, and how did this represent a significant shift to how the border is policed and go hand in hand with the militarization?
Operation Blockade/Hold the Line became the basis for the Border Patrol’s first national strategy in 1994, which led to a series of similar, mostly urban-focused operations to deter crossings there and push them into more remote and dangerous crossing areas. These operations during the mid to late 1990s were rolled out based on the El Paso operation’s strategy—including Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, starting in 1994; Operation Safeguard in Nogales, begun in 1995; and Operation Rio Grande in Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, in 1997.
Planners thought the more hostile conditions would create a natural barrier and deter crossings, but they did not. It led to far less unauthorized crossing in urban areas and much more in remote and more dangerous terrain of deserts, mountains, and dry brush backcountry—and a shift in greater enforcement surveillance, agents, and all sort of other resources there. People kept coming out of desperation, and more died; the annual average number of human remains recovered in the border region more than doubled, totaling more than 10,400 from 1994 to 2022, and many, many more were never found.
This has changed as more people are seeking to apply for asylum and turn themselves in, crossing in urban areas. And again, as time went on, more and more military resources were added to the mix, and increasingly by state governments, most notably Texas.
One of my issues with some national coverage of the border is that this important history is often not known by reporters (at best), or simply left out (at worst). How do you think an awareness about how the border policing apparatus has come to be could help us to understand, perceive, and ultimately think of alternatives to what we have now? In what way could an understanding of Hold the Line allow us to bring new solutions or possibilities to the table?
It is helpful to know how border immigration enforcement has evolved over time and why, and how the militarization process has proceeded and grown enormously—from the use of military equipment and a few troops to now thousands of troops and an enormous array of military-grade gear, and also the Border Patrol and police acting more like military units and the military acting more like police. And it’s all seen as a normal or rational way to address unauthorized border crossing. However, I think this is all border enforcement fetishism that obscures what is really driving and affecting immigration—namely, U.S. foreign policy and trade policy, like harsher economic sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba, NAFTA’s displacement of millions of Mexican farmers and small producers, a long and bloody record of U.S. intervention in Haiti and Central America siding with corrupt elites.
A good start would be lessening sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba. And we need to create more legal pathways for people to enter the U.S. legally, especially with an aging population and a long-term need for more workers, especially in a time of very low unemployment. More border enforcement alone will not address any of those larger underlying factors and thus is likely to have little impact on unauthorized immigration. It’s basically just political posturing, often framed by a good deal of racism.
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