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Blockading the Border and Human Rights

Blockading the Border and Human Rights
The El Paso Operation that Remade Immigration Enforcement

The first book-length study of Operation Blockade and its impact on human rights in the border region.

Series: Inter America Series, Howard Campbell, Duncan Earle, and John Peterson, series editors

May 2009
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313 pages | 6 x 9 |

To understand border enforcement and the shape it has taken, it is imperative to examine a groundbreaking Border Patrol operation begun in 1993 in El Paso, Texas, "Operation Blockade." The El Paso Border Patrol designed and implemented this radical new strategy, posting 400 agents directly on the banks of the Rio Grande in highly visible positions to deter unauthorized border crossings into the urban areas of El Paso from neighboring Ciudad Juárez—a marked departure from the traditional strategy of apprehending unauthorized crossers after entry. This approach, of "prevention through deterrence," became the foundation of the 1994 and 2004 National Border Patrol Strategies for the Southern Border. Politically popular overall, it has rendered unauthorized border crossing far less visible in many key urban areas. However, the real effectiveness of the strategy is debatable, at best. Its implementation has also led to a sharp rise in the number of deaths of unauthorized border crossers.

Here, Dunn examines the paradigm-changing Operation Blockade and related border enforcement efforts in the El Paso region in great detail, as well as the local social and political situation that spawned the approach and has shaped it since. Dunn particularly spotlights the human rights abuses and enforcement excesses inflicted on local Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants as well as the challenges to those abuses. Throughout the book, Dunn filters his research and fieldwork through two competing lenses, human rights versus the rights of national sovereignty and citizenship.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: The Bowie Lawsuit Challenge to the El Paso Border Patrol
  • Chapter 3: Operation Blockade/Hold-the-Line: The Border Patrol Reasserts Control
  • Chapter 4: The Border Wall Campaign
  • Chapter 5: Human Rights Issues and the El Paso Border Patrol
  • Chapter 6: Into the New Century: Continuity, Change, and the Return of Old Problems
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Timothy J. Dunn is Associate Professor of Sociology at Salisbury University in Maryland.


"Securing the border" has become a dominant refrain heard across the political spectrum during recent years as a part of the growing concern (again) over unauthorized (illegal) immigration. While U.S.-Mexico border enforcement has been central to U.S. immigration policy and debates for decades (e.g., see García 1980; Dunn 1996), it has been propelled forward more recently by not only further immigration anxiety but also the post-September 11 preoccupation with terrorism (e.g., see Jehl 2005). Yet to understand border enforcement and the shape it has taken, it is imperative to examine a groundbreaking Border Patrol operation begun in 1993 in El Paso, "Operation Blockade," later renamed "Operation Hold-the-Line." This operation changed Border Patrol enforcement efforts regionwide along the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1990s and remains the foundation of the unit's post-9/11 strategy. Indeed, the Border Patrol's national strategy document for 1994 and beyond declared, "The national strategy builds on El Paso's success" (U.S. Border Patrol 1994, 7), and outlined a series of measures to adopt many of its basic premises in other key southwest Border Patrol sectors (ibid., 8-12)—which it has done with "Operation Gatekeeper" in the San Diego area (1994), "Operation Safeguard" in Arizona (1994, 1999), and "Operation Rio Grande" in South Texas (1997). The El Paso Border Patrol began it all by designing and implementing a radical new strategy in Operation Blockade in September of 1993, by posting some four hundred agents directly on the banks of the Rio Grande in a high-visibility fashion to deter unauthorized (or illegal) border crossings in the urban area of El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez—a marked departure from the traditional strategy of apprehending unauthorized crossers after entry.


This operation, which has continued since in modified form, became the basis for a new paradigm in Border Patrol efforts in the U.S.-Mexico border region, officially termed "prevention through deterrence," and realized in a similar fashion of massing of enforcement resources at traditionally high-volume, mainly urban unauthorized crossing areas. However, the deterrence was selective, as officials acknowledged unauthorized crossers would be diverted to more "hostile terrain" (U.S. Border Patrol 1994, 7), meaning more "remote and difficult to cross" areas (U.S. General Accounting Office 1997, 64). The same "prevention through deterrence" principle that was pioneered in Operation Blockade in El Paso remains the foundation of the 2004 National Border Patrol Strategy for the Southern Border (Office of Border Patrol 2004), though now slightly modified, with the main goal of preventing the entry of terrorists. And the 2004 strategy was still in place as of late 2007 (interview with two El Paso Border Patrol managers, December 2007). This approach has been very popular politically overall, as it has rendered unauthorized border crossing far less visible in key (though not all), mostly urban areas at the same time anti-immigrant political sentiment spiked high in the mid-1990s (Andreas 2000) with the passage of Proposition 187 in California and very punitive federal immigration reform laws in 1996. Following September 11, 2001, border enforcement concern has heightened even further and by the mid-'00's anti-immigrant politics returned. However, the effectiveness of the strategy in significantly reducing unauthorized crossing borderwide is quite debatable, at best. The strategy seems to have resulted in a "squeezing the balloon" effect, where operations (pressure) in some key areas displaced crossings to other previously less heavily trafficked ones, but have not decreased unauthorized immigration overall (Massey 2005a, 2005b, 2007; Massey et al. 2002; Cornelius 2005; Orrenius 2004; Reyes et al. 2002). Moreover, the "prevention through deterrence" strategy has been accompanied by more than 4,600 recorded deaths of unauthorized border crossers from 1994 through 2007, during which time annual border-crossing deaths more than doubled (Cornelius 2006, 5-6; 2005; U.S. Government Accountability Office 2006, 16; McCombs 2007b; McConahay 2007; Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006; Associated Press 2007a; see also Eschbach et al. 1999, 2001a; Cornelius 2001).


El Paso's Operation Blockade merits in-depth examination in its own right and because of its central importance in U.S. border enforcement strategy. My book is focused not only on the paradigm-changing Operation Blockade and related border enforcement efforts in the El Paso region, but also the local social and political context that spawned it and has shaped it since, particularly the human rights abuses and enforcement excesses inflicted on both local Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants as well as challenges to that, prior to and since the implementation of the operation. A historic civil federal lawsuit brought by students and staff from Bowie High School against the El Paso Border Patrol the year before the operation began essentially forced the unit to change its enforcement practices; the operation was in large part a response to the lawsuit. In the process the political standing of the unit shifted radically: at first defensive about a growing cacophony of vivid, legitimized rights abuse claims by Hispanic residents, then rehabilitated as a heroic force keeping "them" (unauthorized Mexican crossers) out and protecting "us," garnering overwhelming support across ethnic lines (i.e., Mexican American and Anglo) on the American side of the border. However, just months later the El Paso Border Patrol faced significant opposition when it proposed to extend the operation by building a solid fence/wall on the border just west of the city. Meanwhile, human rights abuses and other mistreatment by Border Patrol agents have certainly changed over time, becoming far less visible if not less frequent (probably), but have by no means been entirely eliminated by the operation. I examine these issues in extensive detail and interpret them in light of two competing frameworks on understanding rights, Human Rights (transnational) versus Citizenship (nation-state).


Other Research on U.S.-Mexico Border Enforcement


Despite the importance of El Paso's Operation Blockade as the cornerstone of contemporary border enforcement strategy on the U.S.-Mexico border, it has received relatively little scholarly attention. No book has made it the central concern, though several works have focused in part on the operation or various aspects of it and offered important insights—particularly that it is not as successful as is commonly believed, and that it both reflects and has profoundly impacted interethnic relations (Bean et al. 1994; Spener 2000, 2003; Vila 2000, 2003b, 2005; Ortíz-González 2004; Staudt and Coronado 2002). Still, there has been no in-depth, wider study of border enforcement in the area before and since the operation began, examining the dynamic and complex local origins of it and the human rights impact of such enforcement measures. Border enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border has become a more pressing concern over the past decade, as immigration policy debates raged in the 1990s and border security has become the watchword in the post-9/11 context, but there is still little scholarly work devoted to the topic. There are a few more general studies of immigration (and drug) enforcement policy and efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border (Dunn 1996; Andreas 2000; Andreas and Snyder 2001; Social Justice 2001; Massey et al. 2002; Payan 2006), and a few detailed studies of other principal sites of the new approach of the Border Patrol (see Nevins 2002; Maril 2004; Rosas 2004, 2006, 2007; Heyman 1995, 2002; Huspek 2001), but relatively little on El Paso despite its cornerstone role. Still, these studies have broken important ground on a topic too long overlooked and merit a brief review.


The research on the main "prevention through deterrence" border operations elsewhere along the border highlights several new key insights. Nevins (2002) links Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego border area to a heightening of nationalism, in the face of rising globalization and related socioeconomic insecurity, among many sectors of the public—leading readily to scapegoating of "illegal aliens" for a host of social problems in California. Maril (2004) exposes Operation Rio Grande in South Texas as, in the view of field agents, little more than a public relations hoax perpetrated by inept managers. The operation frustrates agents by leaving them unable to apprehend many illegal border crossers they see getting through and by leaving vast areas in their sector of the border that go nearly unguarded. Rosas (2004, 2006, 2007) shows how a particularly stigmatized border-youth-underclass delinquent group in Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, is treated quite harshly by Border Patrol agents (as well as by Mexican police), but is readily able to get past the heightened border enforcement of Operation Safeguard there. Rosas (2006, 404-405, 413) uses the term "policeability" to characterize the scrutiny, heightened surveillance, and occasional violence from the Border Patrol and other local police directed at not only unauthorized border crossers but also those of similar ethnic appearance (i.e., Latinos), including citizens and authorized border crossers.


Heyman (1995, 2002) also gives some attention to Southern Arizona, along with the San Diego border area, in examining views of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers, including Border Patrol agents. He posits that human rights abuses are directed against "defiant" aliens for the most part, at least as defined by agents (Heyman 1995). Further, he finds that Mexican American INS and Border Patrol officers do not share a common identity with and have limited empathy for Mexican and Latino immigrants. He attributes this to the power of citizenship-based rights and benefits, for which Mexican Americans have had to fight long and hard against Anglo racism and perceptions that they were "anticitizens" (Heyman 2002, 485)—i.e., not "really" Americans but rather Mexicans who were here only to provide labor, and who as a result had to frequently prove their right-to-belong and citizenship. Several studies have also examined border enforcement at a more general level, from which a couple of key points stand out. One is that the escalated border enforcement efforts have been largely symbolic, having pushed crossings out of sight into more remote areas but having had little (or at least very debatable) impact on unauthorized immigration overall (Andreas 2000; Massey et al. 2002). Second, there have been a host of human rights problems bound up in border enforcement (Massey et al. 2002; Dunn 1996, 1999a, 2001; Falcón 2001), with potentially many more to come (Nagengast 2002).


There has been some scholarly attention given to the El Paso case specifically, and that has made a number of contributions, though no work focuses squarely on Border Patrol operations there in great depth over an extended period of time. The most detailed analysis of the operation in its early stages is the remarkably multifaceted study of the operation's first six months by the research team contracted by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (Bean et al. 1994). While invaluable, and I cite it widely in this work, it covers a short time period and is largely devoid of local context. Spener (2000, 2003) has written two very insightful anthology chapters on the operation, based in large part on his participation in the Bean et al. report (he is one of the coauthors). He provides an excellent overview, as well as much-needed attention to the issue of the vast volume of local, legal border crossing by Juárez residents, which spiked in the wake of the operation (Spener 2000). He also makes a stinging critique of the operation as "something of a farce" (Spener 2003, 185) in terms of reducing the unauthorized work or residence of Mexicans in the United States, and instead posits that it has been far more about reestablishing the Border Patrol's credibility—a point quite similar to Andreas' borderwide critique of enforcement. Several scholarly books on El Paso (and Ciudad Juárez) also feature Operation Blockade as a key contextual factor and devote some attention to it, and though the operation is not the focal point, I draw on their very valuable related material extensively in my study (Vila 2000, 2003a, 2005; Ortíz-González 2004; Staudt and Coronado 2002).


On the whole, I would argue that our understanding of contemporary border enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border is incomplete, if not impoverished, without an in-depth, detailed examination of the pioneering El Paso case over time, which has thus far not been provided. The El Paso operation not only foretold what was to come in enforcement along the border, but it also demonstrates that the origins of the new national Border Patrol strategy are rooted in a dynamic local relationship between the unit and its supposed "subject population" (Heyman 1995, 264), and the surrounding local social environment more generally. The launching of Operation Blockade in 1993 dramatically changed El Paso and remade national Border Patrol strategy, but its origins are decidedly local. Moreover, a close examination also reveals that although the new border enforcement strategy seemed remarkably successful and popular, many problems remained but were rendered less visible, and that significant opposition to further escalated enforcement measures could be quickly aroused even in the midst of otherwise strong public support for the operation. And most important, the key previous human rights problems that the new strategy addressed did not disappear but rather seem to have decreased somewhat and shifted spatially to more outlying areas. In a broad sense, this foreshadowed the human rights problems that accompanied the new strategy when it was applied elsewhere along the border. The most tragic of these is the previously noted death of more than 4,600 unauthorized border crossers, mainly in other sectors, during the first dozen years of the new Border Patrol enforcement strategy, which is directly related to spatial displacement of unauthorized border crossers to more remote, dangerous areas. Many of the successes (supposed and real), as well as the flaws, of the new Border Patrol enforcement strategy along the U.S.-Mexico border are contained in the El Paso case.


Citizenship and National Sovereignty; Human Rights; and Bureaucratic Power


In studying the pivotal El Paso case of Border Patrol enforcement, I will analyze the data in light of two competing frameworks on rights—the Citizenship-National Sovereignty view and the Human Rights perspective—and also to a lesser extent in light of several key concepts from bureaucracy/complex organizations theory. A key position among immigration scholars is that international human rights norms are eroding national sovereignty and replacing citizenship as the basis for determining rights. This seems quite at odds with the reality of ongoing immigration events and policies, as nationalist and restrictionist sentiments have dominated U.S. immigration policy and debates since at least 1986—until the massive mobilizations of immigrants and supporters in the spring of 2006 opened political space for more of a debate. For while human rights norms have become more prominent rhetorically over the years, citizenship and national sovereignty still reign supreme in immigration matters, especially at the border, the very delimitation of national sovereignty. Moreover, in the post-September 11 world, human rights concerns in immigration (and many other) matters are being cast aside in the name of national security and antiterrorism. And Samuel Huntington, the prominent political theorist of the "Clash of Civilizations" thesis so in vogue following September 11, has even proposed that Hispanic immigration, especially Mexican, poses a threat to the (supposed) "Anglo-Protestant" culture of the United States and even to the nation itself, due to what he alleges is a strong tendency among Hispanic immigrants to refuse to assimilate, and hence identify with the United States (Huntington 2004a, 2004b).


The key point of difference between the citizenship view of rights versus that of the human rights perspective revolves around the question of whether rights are conditional or unconditional. The citizenship framework holds that rights are conditional, whereas in the human rights perspective rights are unconditional. In the citizenship view rights are conditioned upon nation-state recognition and following the state's precepts. The classic view of Marshall (1950) is that through struggle, citizens have over time won ever greater rights from the state (civil, political, and social)—which conforms with the history of civil rights movements in the United States. Moreover, this state recognition of citizens' rights is itself conditional, whether based on property ownership, historically, or the fulfillment of duties (e.g., paying taxes) and following the law (see Van Gunsteren 1978; Barbalet 1988; Turner 1990; Isin and Turner 2002). However, some advocates of the citizenship framework are starting to recognize that international migration has grown and that noncitizens seek rights as well, which makes traditional citizenship notions insufficient and has instead led to still-forming, somewhat vague variations such as transnational, cultural, or denationalized citizenship (Isin and Turner 2002; Miller 2002; Sassen 2002, 2006; Castles and Davidson 2000).


Within immigration studies there is a prominent faction that at least implicitly takes what I term a citizenship-nationalistic perspective, in that national sovereignty, security, and citizenship are their primary concerns, to which immigration is said to pose a challenge or even a threat (e.g., see Jacobson 1996; Weiner 1995; Soysal 1994; Brubaker 1989; Shuck 1998; Jopke 1998; Baubock and Rundell 1998; Sassen 1998, 2002, 2006; Teitelbaum and Weiner 1995; Huntington 2004a, 2004b; Castles and Davidson 2000; Shafir 1998; Koopmans et al. 2005). Much of this literature proposes a more or less zero-sum struggle in which human rights for immigrants are thought to undermine citizenship and the nation-state. (In contrast, the vast impact of international capital in undermining national sovereignty typically is not scrutinized.) Indeed, international migration and human rights standards are seen as fundamentally challenging citizenship, national boundaries, and the basis of nation-state legitimacy (Sassen 1998, 2002, 2006; Jacobson 1996; and Soysal 1994). This position, in my view, is consistent with the overall thrust of the growing nativist, anti-immigrant forces in developed nations—though I am not suggesting these authors are nativists themselves. In this view, human rights principles are "undermining the boundaries of the nation-state" (Soysal 1994, 157) and creating a "denationalized citizenship" (Sassen 2006, 303-309; Sassen 2002). Moreover, granting rights to "foreign populations" has "undermined the very basis of national citizenship" and has rendered citizenship "inventively irrelevant" (Soysal 1994, 137, 162). Further, in the related nationalistic perspective (outlined by Eschbach et al. 2001b, 9), protection and enhancement of the nation-state are justifiable regardless of their impact on nonmembers, or even at times on minority group members. Similarly, Soysal (1994, 132-134) and Jacobson (1996, 97) cite examples of quite repressive treatment of immigrants as reinforcing national sovereignty and citizenship. Heyman (1998, 38) posits that citizenship is an "anti-immigrant ideology" in designating citizens as insiders deserving of rights versus noncitizens as outsiders undeserving of rights.


While the citizenship-nationalistic camp sees human rights standards as a threat to national sovereignty, proponents also do acknowledge that, ultimately (and ironically), human rights depend on nation-states to be enforced (Soysal 1994, 149; Jacobson 1996, 11; Sassen 1998, 2002, 2006), and that international human rights agreements "do not for the most part entail formal obligations or enforceable rules" (Soysal 1994, 149) for nation-states. However, "They [international human rights treaties] form a basis for the claims of migrants . . . and stir up publicity regarding migrant issues" (Soysal 1994, 149, emphasis added; see also Jacobson 1996, 100; Sassen 1998, 94-97). Thus, the real "danger" of human rights agreements for national sovereignty and citizenship is that they provide a framework for immigrants and other nonstate, noncitizen social actors (e.g., nongovernmental organizations) to make claims upon nation-states and to generate publicity. This hardly seems like human rights superseding citizenship, national sovereignty, and national boundaries—let alone even threatening democracy itself, as suggested more recently by Jacobson (2004).


The human rights perspective, in contrast, maintains that rights are unconditional and views state and bureaucratic-organizational power in a more critical light. In this view one has rights because he or she is a human being, and though duties are important, rights are not conditional upon them (Sjoberg et al. 2001). Moreover, human rights are universal, transnational and not nation-state bound. An overriding concern is advancing human dignity and equal respect, especially in light of organizational power, that of both the state and private sector (see Sjoberg et al. 2001, 25). Specifically about state power, Turner (1993, 178) notes: "the point about . . . human rights is that they are extragovernmental and have traditionally been used to counteract the repressive capacity of states." He stresses the concept of universal "human frailty" or vulnerability as underpinning the human rights framework (Turner 1993, 2006; Elliott and Turner 2003)—a condition that is especially evident in light of state repression. (More recently Turner [2006, 139-140] has changed course and proposed that human rights and nation-state citizenship are not in tension, but rather complementary—a view I see as overly beholden to the nation-state.) While human rights are very difficult to enforce, Sjoberg and colleagues (2001) propose that they provide a crucial means for evaluating organizations (both governmental and corporate) and at least potentially holding them accountable, because they provide widely accepted standards that transcend a specific nation or organization. Crucial for this study, Sjoberg (1996, 285-289; see also Sjoberg and Vaughan 1993, 144-149) proposes that bureaucratic power structures tend to undermine the human rights of the most subordinated groups in society, through a process of "social triage," wherein their well-being is sacrificed or written off, and sometimes repressed, because adequately addressing their needs and rights would be "inefficient" for elites (and I would add, for other advantaged groups); it would entail too much cost and sacrifice on their part. Both authors maintain that the human rights perspective is better suited for analysis in a world increasingly marked by globalization, a phenomenon that certainly includes international migration. Martinez in essence combines several key concerns of Turner and Sjoberg, in proposing that repressive acts by official agencies of state power (noted by Turner) not only adversely impact the well-being of individual victims but also serve to subjugate communities (in line with Sjoberg), causing "trauma suffered by the community" that in turn creates distrust and disempowerment and inhibits human development and constructive social relationships.


Within immigration literature, there is a growing body of work that at least implicitly adopts the human rights perspective—i.e., showing concern for the rights, well-being, and dignity of immigrants (e.g., see Pécound and Guchteneire 2006, 2007; Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006; Cornelius 2005, 2001; U.S. Government Accountability Office 2006; Koulish et al. 1994; Santibáñez et al. 1993; Eschbach et al. 1999, 2001a; Bustamante 2002; Mattila 2000; Goodwin-Gill 2000; Rosenblum 1999; Dunn 1996, 1999a, 2001; Dunn, Aragones, and Shivers 2005; Fujiwara 2005; Social Justice 1996, 2001; Hernandez-Truyol 1997; Nevins 2003, 2008; Johnson 2008; Heyman 1998). While making important contributions, particularly in offering an alternative to the more developed and dominant nationalistic-citizenship view, much of it is either relatively abstract (often legalistic or philosophical) or, conversely, very focused on empirical details and lacking in concepts (though some works provide policy suggestions/options), and none squarely addresses the bureaucratic power structures whose agents commit rights abuses. Several key points stand out, however. First, Bustamante (2002, 345-346) proposes that those who see the granting of rights to immigrants, especially to undocumented immigrants, as harmful to nation-states reinforce a power inequality that leads to impunity for those who violate the human rights of immigrants—i.e., not granting immigrant rights gives abusers carte blanche. He also notes that the vulnerability of immigrants and their human rights is not due to a lack of international human rights standards and treaties that apply to this group, but rather to a lack of political will on the part of nation-states to enforce them (on this see also Mattila 2000) in the absence of any international mechanism to do so. Perhaps as a result, many advocates for the rights of immigrants frame their arguments in some variation of the language of citizenship, not human rights (Social Justice 1996; Rosenblum 1999; Romero 2005; Park 2004; Johnson 2004). Within this approach, the cultural citizenship framework, for example, is focused on how Latinos in the United States, citizens and immigrants, have gone about constructing/winning their rights at the community and grassroots level, and ultimately from the nation-state (Oboler 2006; Latino Studies 2004a, 2004b; Flores and Benmayor 1997; Camarillo and Bonilla 2001). While importantly stressing the agency of a subordinate group, this view tends to see a unity between Latin American immigrants and Latino U.S. citizens, or to otherwise conflate them, which is by no means always accurate. For instance, De Genova and Ramos-Zayas (2003) show how differing citizenship status serves as a source of antagonism between Puerto Ricans (U.S. citizens) and Mexican immigrants. This citizenship focus is quite consistent with Heyman's (2002) interpretation of the long Mexican American experience with Anglo racism and perceptions of Mexican Americans as "anticitizens," noted earlier. In addition, one study showed the key role of framing immigrants' claims for human rights based on their demonstrations of nation-state loyalty and patriotism (Fujiwara 2005).


The citizenship conceptual focus is not surprising, given the crucial quest for civil rights by minority groups in U.S. history, and the eminently clear route such an approach has afforded to subordinated groups (i.e., mobilize, then confront and petition the state). Thus rights in the United States typically have been understood as civil rights—rooted in the U.S. Constitution and accorded by the federal government—for which subordinated groups of all types have had to struggle over the years, most famously African Americans. While very understandable, this exclusively nation-state focus presents a trap of sorts, for if rights are conditional upon nation-state recognition granting them, what does one use as a counterstandard and ideal for rights if the nation-state turns down a group's petition, or decides it's politically expedient to take away that group's rights? This concern is especially relevant for immigrants as nonmembers or marginal members of a society. Hence the importance of human rights as an alternative, universal standard against which to evaluate nation-state practices and build critiques of infringements on human dignity, even when such infringements are legal under a given nation's laws (Sjoberg et al. 2001). They are international, unconditional, and based most notably on the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948, which includes some thirty articles guaranteeing, among other things: life, liberty, and security of person (Article 3); freedom from torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (5); freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile (9); and freedom of movement, including to leave one's country (13) (though the document is silent on the right to enter other countries); and that all people are equal in dignity and rights (1) and all are entitled to human rights without distinctions of national or social origin or language (2) (see United Nations 1948).


Finally, organizations are a key issue in my adapted framework on human rights, and some theoretical points on them bear mentioning as well, especially as my study is focused on a specific bureaucratic power structure, the Border Patrol, and its effects on its "subject population" (Heyman 1995, 264)—i.e., those over whom the unit presumes to exercise authority, meaning in this study mainly Mexican immigrants and those who may appear to be Hispanic immigrants, namely Mexican Americans. ("Hispanic" is a more apt term than "Latino" in this context, given local practices and realities.) In broader terms, my focus is on the impact of a bureaucracy on its surrounding social environment (Perrow 1986), one rife with inequality and ethnic subordination in this case. It speaks volumes that such social impacts constitute a largely neglected theme in organizational studies despite the obviously profound effects of large organizations (public and private) on society (Perrow 2000). (In contrast, as noted previously, Sjoberg and colleagues do take up the notion of the impact of bureaucracy on the human rights of disadvantaged groups, while Martinez notes the traumatic impact on communities of human rights abuses committed by state agencies.) In addition to wielding great power and resources, bureaucracies exercise their considerable influence through subtle means as well, such as employing "powerful myths" and symbols (Meyer and Rowan 1991; Selznick 1996, 273-274) to construct their legitimacy, as well as by turning demands for democratic input by the public into "administrative involvement" (Selznick 1953, 265), or managed, controlled participation. Regarding the manipulation of myths and symbols, the Border Patrol routinely employed the depersonalizing term "illegal alien," and (as we shall see) invoked "street crime" and even the provocative term "border bandits," to frame new border enforcement projects. While bureaucracies most often produce conformity and social control with such measures, groups and individuals make challenges to them by drawing upon competing or contradictory symbols and practices from various distinct institutions, and playing them off against each other, to thereby seek change "within and between" institutions or organizations (Freidland and Alford 1991, 254-257)—e.g., applying the norms of democracy to a hierarchical, authoritarian bureaucracy. Thus, I see a dynamic, though unequal, relationship between bureaucracy and its "subject population."




I gathered most of my data for this study while living and working for five years (1994-1999) in El Paso, Texas, researching and writing my dissertation (on which this book is based) and working as a college instructor. My general methodological approach was that of the case study, defined by Orum et al. (1991, 2) as "an in-depth, multifaceted investigation, using qualitative research methods, of a single social phenomenon" (see also Yin 2002), which is particularly apt when studying bureaucracies and organizational deviance (Sjoberg et al. 1991, 55-60). The basic strategy was to seek multiple data sources and types, drawing on people having a variety of perspectives or from varying social locations, based on the assumption that powerful organizations are likely to closely hold and selectively release information on their activities (Sjoberg and Nett 1997, xliv). My main research method was ethnographic fieldwork (Jorgensen 1989; Neuman 2003, Chapter 13)—observation, participant-observation, as well as open-ended, semistructured interviews with a wide range of informants—supplemented by the use of written documents, particularly court documents, human rights reports, and local newspaper accounts. In sifting through the data I adopted a "bottom-up orientation" emphasizing the point of view of subordinated actors (Williams and Sjoberg 1993), particularly the "subject population" of the Border Patrol, though I also took into account the "top-down perspective" of bureaucratic elites. My purpose was to discover, describe, and interpret the data for a "bottom-up" contemporary history of Border Patrol enforcement efforts in El Paso, a topic that has gone largely unexamined by scholars. I gave special emphasis to human rights issues, not only for their intrinsic importance but also guided by Durkheim's classic insight that the study of "deviance" (organizational in this case) helps us to better understand the "normal" (cited by Sjoberg and Nett 1997, 264).


My data sources were predominantly from outside the Border Patrol, as I was unable to gain formal, deep, and ongoing access to members of the El Paso Border Patrol, beyond several high-level managers and a few field agents. As is the case with many agencies, its leaders were not willing to provide wide-open access to an independent, outside researcher, but they did provide some limited access and tried as best they could to answer all my questions. I compensated for this by also interviewing several local retired Border Patrol agents and two retired INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) officials—making for interviews with some fifteen current and former Border Patrol and INS officials (nearly all Border Patrol, and most currently with the unit). I also participated in a five-week-long Border Patrol Citizens Academy (BPCA) in 1995 (a class presenting the unit's point of view on its mission and activities to interested citizens). In addition, I did in-depth interviews with an additional sixty-five individuals from a wide range of backgrounds but somehow related to the unit and its activities, including victims of human rights abuses by agents (twelve) and lawyers and activists challenging Border Patrol enforcement abuses and excesses (twenty); other law enforcement or military officials whose units collaborated with the Border Patrol (five); and various knowledgeable local observers of Border Patrol enforcement efforts (twenty-eight)—e.g., social service providers, residents of patrolled areas, reporters, etc. I supplemented this research from the 1990s with brief fieldwork in July 2004, interviewing eighteen additional people, including four Border Patrol officials, as well as remaining in ongoing contact during the first decade of the 2000s with several friends and informants living in the El Paso area and making several additional trips to the area, each involving some research (briefly in January 2001 and March 2005, longer for most of Summer 2007 and in late November-early December 2007).


However, given my lack of inside access to the Border Patrol, my primary source of data was my experience as participant-observer (and sometimes just passive observer) with "watchdog" groups challenging the unit's enforcement excesses, namely, the El Paso Border Rights Coalition (BRC) and People Against the Wall (PAW), during the mid-1990s (1995-1998). I supplemented this with my observations as a resident of El Paso for five years (1994-1999), living in a hillside central city neighborhood (Sunset Heights) less than a mile from the border, and closely observing local border enforcement issues and related news and debates. As a member of the BRC and PAW, I participated in numerous meetings, had countless conversations, developed friendships, and attended a number of public events—mainly as an observer—particularly during the intense six-month-long conclusion to the Border Patrol's wall campaign in 1995 and after. I also observed twenty public presentations by the Border Patrol to build support for its efforts (most during the border wall campaign). Also, as a member of the BRC, I participated in a collaborative project that created a forty-minute video on Border Patrol human rights abuses pursuant to the settlement for the Bowie lawsuit (discussed later), which afforded me access to a number of victims and case materials. My methodological approach was adapted from Littrell's (1993) "adversarial methods" for research on bureaucratic power structures, which he maintains allow researchers the greatest independence in studying them (rather than adopting the worldview of the organization) and are a means to overcome common obstacles to accessing data on them—though I sought to take a somewhat more discreet, less adversarial role than that outlined by Littrell (1993). He recommends extensive participant-observational techniques emphasizing the researcher's role as an active citizen participating in groups challenging bureaucratic power structures. I also followed the long-standing (and often neglected) "social reform" tradition in sociology (Feagin and Vera 2001) in taking a critical approach and working with activist groups seeking to improve society. Thus, the points of view I came to know the best were those critical of the Border Patrol and located outside it, and as such constitute a "bottom-up" view at odds with the "official story" put out by the leaders of the unit. However, I also sought as much as possible to know and understand the "official story" of the unit's leaders and other perspectives from within the unit, albeit on a limited basis owing to lack of access, with which I could compare the outside perspectives that the unit often ignored or denied.


A Note on Militarization


Before proceeding, I should briefly explain my approach in this book in light of my previous work, as some readers familiar with my earlier work may have some questions about the apparent lack of continuity. In my previous book (Dunn 1996), an examination of immigration and drug enforcement borderwide from 1978 to 1992, I posited that border enforcement had become increasingly militarized—i.e., with the military acting more like the police as they became involved and the Border Patrol acting in a more militarized fashion, broadly speaking, with much of it, specifically, reflecting key features of the Pentagon's Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine—and that this had ominous human rights implications, some of which were already evident. However, in this book I have decided not to pursue the militarization thesis for several reasons—though I have pursued it in other work (Dunn 1999b, 2001; Dunn and Palafox 2005). My main reason is that the militarization interpretation does not square well with the substance of the El Paso case, in my view; this became clear to me the more I studied it over my five years in El Paso. There are some elements of militarization present (e.g., some military support in helicopter surveillance, and some use of military surveillance equipment by the Border Patrol, and so on), but these were not central features of Operation Blockade; and the chief feature of the lining up of hundreds of agents along the river did not rise to militarization in my mind. Operation Blockade was a bristling show of force in its early stages especially, but not of blatantly militaristic force (military equipment or personnel, or agents outfitted as such)—or at least very little—but rather it was a vivid display of the ubiquitous, ordinary green-and-white Border Patrol vehicles along the Rio Grande staffed by regular agents parked along the river. Whatever militarism was present at the outset, it faded over time as staffing levels were reduced and the operation became routinized and more mundane. It just didn't look or feel like a military operation in any meaningful way to me; it was a police matter overwhelmingly and framed as such by its designer, Sector Chief Silvestre Reyes. (However, subsequent similar efforts, Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and Operation Safeguard in Arizona, appear to have had a much greater degree of militarization [including much greater military involvement and resources].) Operation Blockade showed that border enforcement was not a unidirectional trend toward more militarization (in a more narrow sense), but rather that the Border Patrol could take the initiative and carry out heightened border enforcement in a relatively less militarized way. However, this operation also showed such could still lead to serious, though less visible, human rights problems—the most significant of which, border-crossing deaths, becoming much clearer as the strategy was implemented elsewhere along the border.


The Setting and the El Paso Border Patrol


Before proceeding to the data and substantive issues of this study, I should briefly outline the setting of El Paso and overview the El Paso Border Patrol sector. El Paso, and its neighbor immediately across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juárez, constitute the second-largest metropolitan area on the border (following San Diego and Tijuana), with some 1.9 million people in 2000; El Paso accounts for nearly 700,000 and Juárez the remainder (Coronado and Vargas 2001). In general terms, El Paso is a large, poor city, with a poverty rate typically around 25 percent (more than twice the national average), with unemployment usually in the 9-13 percent range, where Hispanics make up some three-quarters of the population, and non-Hispanic whites ("Anglos" in local terms) nearly all the rest (apart from a small portion of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans), and the foreign-born (overwhelmingly Mexican and a subgroup of the Hispanic portion of the populace) make up approximately one-quarter of the population (Staudt 1998, 35, 41; Coronado and Vargas 2001). The key ethnic divide in the city is between the shrinking, but still economically dominant, Anglo population and the growing Mexican American and Mexican immigrant population, though there has been relatively little overt conflict or even great tension.


Some 70,000 people live in hard-scrabble colonias in the rural desert areas outside of El Paso, which are unincorporated, poor communities made up mainly of recent Mexican immigrants and lacking in basic services, usually running water and/or wastewater. While neighboring Ciudad Juárez is a centerpiece of the border maquiladora industry (foreign-owned export production and assembly), with approximately half of its population being migrants from elsewhere in Mexico, it also has much greater poverty, including among the some 200,000 heavily female factory workers (Wright 2006; Salzinger 2003; Bowden 1998)—despite also a growing group of well-educated, middle-class professionals (Sklair 1993). El Paso, in contrast, has suffered massive job losses under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), some 15,000 by 1999 (Gilot 1999), mainly in the once-thriving garment industry—though officially only some 9,500 by 2002 (Public Citizen 2005, citing U.S. Department of Labor data). Despite overall high levels of poverty and unemployment, there is a burgeoning Mexican American middle class in El Paso. Some 21 percent of all jobs in El Paso are public sector, over 50,000, including nearly 5,000 civilian jobs at the Fort Bliss army base. El Paso is a military town with 59,000 military retirees and family members in the area, in addition to 12,000 soldiers at Fort Bliss ("City of El Paso" 2005). Various federal police agencies related to the border also are key employers (e.g., Border Patrol, INS, Customs Service, etc.).


El Paso is geographically isolated, located at the tip of West Texas squeezed in between New Mexico and Mexico, over five hundred miles from the nearest large urban area to the east (Austin or San Antonio, Texas) and nearly three hundred miles from any other large city to the west, north, or south (Tucson, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico; or Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, respectively); the only significant-sized city nearby, besides neighboring Ciudad Juárez, is Las Cruces, New Mexico (some 50,000 people and fifty miles north). Otherwise, El Paso is surrounded by sparsely populated desert and dry mountains for hundreds of miles in any direction, apart from the Rio Grande Valley, which turns north into New Mexico on the west side of El Paso, where the U.S.-Mexico border switches from being the Rio Grande to a riverless, land border going west through desolate territory to the Pacific. Perhaps owing to such isolation, most undocumented border crossing in recent decades has been of local, often temporary crossers—many of whom came to work in El Paso—rather than long-distance migrants heading to the U.S. interior. However, El Paso also has a continuous and long history of large-scale Mexican migration for settlement purposes, starting in the early twentieth century with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) (see Romo 2005; Garcia 1981).


The El Paso Border Patrol sector, with thirteen stations, covers the two westernmost counties of Texas (El Paso and Hudspeth) and all of New Mexico, and includes some 289 miles of the border (El Paso Border Patrol 2005). Staffing levels grew from some six hundred agents at the outset of Operation Blockade in 1993, the vast majority in the El Paso area (interview with David, El Paso Border Patrol manager, September 19, 1996), to nearly double that by mid-2005, and increasingly agents were posted in outlying stations, especially in New Mexico. Until Operation Blockade, the El Paso sector was typically the second-largest sector in terms of annual apprehensions of unauthorized crossers (following the San Diego sector), averaging in excess of 200,000 apprehensions per year, before dropping sharply after the operation began. Prior to the blockade Border Patrol agents were typically focused on apprehending unauthorized border crossers after they had entered the country, patrolling mainly to question, detain, and apprehend. A memo from Border Patrol managers in this era stressed to agents the importance of generating as many apprehensions as possible in order to justify future budget requests (Salopek 1992, 1993). This meant hundreds of thousands of episodes per year of stopping and questioning suspects, making such incidents a common reality for residents of Hispanic appearance in heavily patrolled areas (e.g., poor neighborhoods near the Rio Grande). Within the unit, there was a gradual historical shift in ethnic makeup of the traditionally nearly all-Anglo unit (until the 1970s), as by 1995 approximately half of the agents in the El Paso Border Patrol were Hispanic, with Anglos accounting for nearly all the rest (and a few African Americans); while in terms of gender makeup, males made up 95 percent of the unit (El Paso Border Patrol Citizens Academy presentation, September 20, 1995). The El Paso Border Patrol's first Hispanic sector chief, Silvestre Reyes (the architect of Operation Blockade), was appointed in 1993.




From here forward I examine border enforcement and human rights in the El Paso area in a largely chronological fashion, starting with the historic Bowie lawsuit of 1992 that reined in Border Patrol abuses, followed by an examination of the implementation of Operation Blockade (later renamed Operation Hold-the-Line) in 1993, and then a close study of the debate and struggle over a border wall/solid fence proposed by the Border Patrol for just west of El Paso in late 1993 through 1995. I then take a more detailed look at human rights issues for the pre‑ and post-Operation Blockade eras, through the mid-1990s. My last substantive chapter is an update of border enforcement and human rights issues in the area from 1999 through 2005, especially post-September 11, 2001. I conclude with an analysis of this data and history in light of the competing citizenship-nationalistic and human rights frameworks on rights, followed by a brief epilogue on 2006-2007 and a look toward the future.



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