Operation Blockade: Bullying Tactic or Border Control Model?

By John L. Martin on December 1, 1993


This evaluation of "Operation Blockade," a two-week intensive effort in September by the Border Patrol to prevent illegal border crossing in the El Paso sector, is based on a November 7-9, 1993 trip to El Paso and further discussions in Washington. The purpose of the trip was to gather information on the conditions leading up to the operation's start and its results.

It was not intended to be only a retrospective study. The new Border Patrol deployment is continuing under the name Operation Hold the Line. Therefore, this report also looks at what may be the results if the new deployment is maintained over the long-term.

Key issues examined were:

  • How can the results be assessed? For the Border Patrol or the community?
  • What resource implications are suggested by the new border control posture?
  • Does the new Border Patrol effort represent a viable long-term approach to more successful border control?
  • What factors contribute to its viability and what circumstances work against it?

The method of arriving at conclusions involved: (1) observation of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border and port of entry characteristics; (2) observing border control operations and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) screening procedures for legal border crossing; (3) interviews with Border Control and INS officials; (4) interviews with El Paso community representatives from a wide spectrum of interests; and (5) follow-up discussions in Washington.

The bottom line of the evaluation is that Operation Blockade has proven to be successful and merits study for its replicability in other border areas. The new preventative deployment of the Border Patrol is both more humane and more effective. Besides deterring illegal entry, it also has had some immediate positive effects and some negative ones on the local community.

The abrupt fashion in which the operation was launched generated concern among community leaders, because the effort was apparently developed in a vacuum, i.e., without active community participation or adequate political oversight at either the local or national level. Although the new border control posture touched off some criticism for being heavy-handed, a large majority of the El Paso public and community leaders support the effort and believe it will benefit the community if it can be maintained over the long run.

One of the major issues to watch is whether this new t ongoing operation is sustainable in terms of the reaction of Mexicans, who are accustomed to bypassing U.S. control, and in terms of the morale of the Border Patrol agents. The issue with regard to the Mexican and other illegal border crossers is whether they will find new means to gain illegal entry t e.g. t with counterfeit documents or alternative routes across the border outside of the closed off downtown area. With regard to the Border Patrol agents, the issue is boredom. Unlike the excitement of the previous emphasis on apprehensions, when agents were busy trying to catch large numbers of illegal entrants, the new deployment along the line successfully deters illegal border crossing attempts, and the agents are relegated to a more symbolic deterrent role with less activity.

Whether the successful reduction in illegal crossings could be replicated elsewhere depends on the resources available and the terrain in other areas. El Paso's Border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes points to similar efforts he conducted on two occasions when he directed the McAllen, Texas sector. He observes that he did not have sufficient personnel resources there to maintain indefinitely a preventative posture. He notes also that a similar operation in the San Diego region, with its higher volume of illegal crossings, might encounter different results.

If similar operations are undertaken elsewhere on the border t consideration should be given to phasing in the new border control posture. Alternatively t an overnight initiation of a new posture as happened in El Paso might generate less public concern about the method of the change, as opposed to its objective, if there were prior public knowledge of it. This, however, would run the risk of allowing resistance to be sufficiently mobilized against the change to undermine its effectiveness from the outset.


I. Pre-operation developments:

  • Silvestre Reyes assumes responsibility for El Paso sector in July 1993.
  • El Paso Border Patrol under Reyes' direction submits plan for new border control "Operation Blockade" requiring end of fiscal year funding.
  • INS headquarters approves operation and provides $300,000 for two-week effort.
  • Border Patrol coordinates with INS-El Paso, which controls entry points for legal border crossing.
  • INS-El Paso obtains reinforcements from Dallas to strengthen bridge traffic screening capability.
  • A meeting is held on September 17 between Mexican Consul General in El Paso and United States Consul General in Ciudad Juarez as part of program to develop a regular border liaison forum to deal with border troubles. No awareness of Operation Blockade surfaces.

II. Operation Blockade September 19 - October 2, 1993

  • September 19: Operation launched Sunday morning with deployment of 400 Border Patrol agents along central 20-mile segment of the border on an around-the-clock basis and with repairs to the border fence in the downtown El Paso area.
  • September 21: An estimated 800 Mexican protestors chanting "we want to work" close off the "Paso del Norte" bridge from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso and confront Border Patrol. Crowd eventually is dispersed by Ciudad Juarez police after a visit to the scene by the Ciudad Juarez Mayor. El Paso Mayor Larry Francis is reported in El Paso Times as saying he "...is not sure why the Border Pat
  • September 22: Protest rally in downtown Ciudad Juarez by an estimated 700 people.
  • September 24: Border Patrol announces that the new deployment will continue indefinitely.
  • September 27: An estimated 300 Juarez residents protest Operation Blockade at downtown railroad bridge.
  • September 28: Ciudad Juarez Chambers of Commerce and Industry call for a boycott of El Paso retail outlets to protest the operation, labeling it an "attack on dignity."
  • September 29: El Paso Mayor Larry Francis testifies in Washington that the operation has been (at least initially) successful. He declares, "The Mayor of Juarez and I wholeheartedly support Operation 'Blockade.'" He also commends El Paso Border Patrol Chief Reyes "..for his aggressive and innovative stance concerning illegal immigration." He states that illegal border crossers cost El Paso approximately $30 million per year for health care to new born infants, education and law enforcement.
  • September 30: INS Commissioner-designate Doris Meissner in Senate confirmation hearings comments that Operation Blockade is apparently succeeding in dramatically cutting down on illegal immigration in the El Paso sector, but notes that it is causing a sales loss to local business.
  • October 2: Two-week old Operation Blockade ends as an overtime-funded effort.

III. Post-operation developments:

  • "Operation Hold the Line" supplants "Operation Blockade" with the same deployment and effectiveness as a result of reassignment of agents from interior sector operations to the border.
  • The reduction in attempted illegal border crossing and apprehensions at the border and inland continue to mark the success of the operation.
  • A slight rise is recorded in Border Patrol apprehensions in areas outlying the downtown El Paso frontier.
  • Initially depressed retail sales in South El Paso rise back toward normal.


El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, its sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande, have constituted an established point for migration and trade for centuries. Understanding the history of this urban area that straddles the U.S.-Mexican border helps to understand the attitudes of the local residents toward border control issues.

The first settlement by Spanish explorers occurred at Ysleta on the outskirts of what is now El Paso in 1682 in the same year that William Penn was founding Pennsylvania. Thus, El Paso del Norte (the passage to the North) was over 160-years old in 1848 when it became a U.S. border city as a result of Mexico's loss of territory at the end of the two-year Mexican-American War. El Paso was incorporated as a city in 1873. The first cross-border exchange by foreign heads of state involving a sitting U.S. president occurred between President Taft and President Diaz at El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in 1909.

The population living in the about 250 square miles of El Paso is growing rapidly. Between 1970 and 1990 the city grew by over 10,000 inhabitants per year, making it about two-thirds more populated in 1990 than it was in 1970. Yet, as documented in a recent study on El Paso's economy1, it is a city with a depressed wage structure and high numbers of unemployed and poverty level residents. In 1989, El Paso's per capita income, at $9,484, was the lowest among the 75 largest U.S. cities. Recent unemployment has been running over 10 percent and the poverty level over 20 percent.

With Ciudad Juarez being the largest city in Chihuahua- Mexico's largest state and being more than twice as large as El Paso, her sister city, it is unsurprising that the combined population of the urban area is majority Hispanic. Butt because of the proximity and the easy cross-border access, the El Paso population at over half a million is by itself about seventy percent Hispanic. The 1990 census found that nearly one-quarter (24%) of the city's residents are foreign born, indicating that a majority of the city's population and a majority of its Hispanic population are native-born Americans.

El Paso is a popular shopping destination for Mexicans, both those who live in Ciudad Juarez and those further in the interior. According to the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, the city's retail trade amounts to $4 billion per year, and, even by conservative estimates, Mexican consumers account for one-quarter of that amount.2

Border Control Pre-Operation Blockade

El Paso is not only contiguous with Ciudad Juarez, but also sits at the border between Texas and New Mexico. While the Rio Grande forms the Texas-Chihuahua border, the New Mexico-Chihuahua border to the west is a land frontier delineated only by periodic boundary markers. The El Paso Border Patrol district has responsibilities for both the city and beyond the city along the Texas and New Mexico borders with Chihuahua, Mexico.

At El Paso there are four points of entry across the border for pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Three are municipal and one is international. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), in cooperation with the U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture, controls the traffic flow across these bridges. There are also two railroad bridges that cross the river between the two countries. They have steel gates that are opened when trains cross the border. The level of traffic at these entry points last year was estimated to be 35 million crossers into El Paso. A normal level of legal crossings, according to an INS official, is about 120,000 persons per day.

Unlike many other visitors to the United States, the majority of Mexicans who cross at El Paso are not required to have passports and visas. A long-standing provision allows these visitors to apply for a border crossing card referred to popularly as a "mica" at a U.S. consulate or from the INS at the border. It is a laminated identity card with photograph that is issued to persons who are able to satisfy the U.S. authority that they have permanent ties in Mexico and will not remain in the United States. The mica is valid for travel only within 25 miles of the border and for periods of entry up to 72 hours.

According to the INS officials in El Paso, the service issues about 250 new micas a day, or about 65,000 last year. A total of about 5,000 micas were invalidated last year (probably because they were found on persons trying to exceed the 25-mile limit and travel into the interior of the United States).

The border crossing card is a document possessed widely by established residents in Mexican border communities such as Ciudad Juarez, and interior points such as the state capital Chihuahua City. An INS official noted that even among the Mexican workers at U.S.-run assembly (maquiladora) operations in Juarez identified by some NAFTA commentators as paying sub-standard wages (by U.S. standards) the INS routinely issues the mica to those whom the employer attests have been on the job for periods over six months to one year.

In the downtown El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area the physical border, in addition to the Rio Grande which is channelized and runs shallow enough to wade across at times is bolstered by a wall topped by a high mesh fence. According to the Border Patrol, the fence was pierced by holes at several points that had been cut by illegal border crossers. These breaches of the fence served to channel the entry of illegal aliens and facilitate surveillance by fixed low-light video cameras as well as the response of the Border Patrol units when crossers were detected. This posture prior to Operation Blockade of allowing illegal border crossers easy access to El Paso and then attempting to apprehend them was a cat and mouse operation. It in effect invited a would-be illegal crosser to take a chance.

Outside the immediate downtown area, illegal crossing is also impeded to the west by a water-filled concrete canal on the U.S.-side of the border. It has accounted for the drowning of several presumably illegal border crossers. In addition, a major interstate highway parallels part of the border and runs through downtown El Paso, and railroad tracks follow the same path. These physical barriers at or near the border caused the bulk of intending illegal immigrants or illegal commuting workers to attempt entry in a fairly predictable pattern of crossing points, i.e., at the bridges, across the river and through the fence holes or at points where the canal could be crossed.

One point of illegal entry , which demonstrates what appears to represent an egregious lack of serious enforcement effort, was at the international bridge. In addition to two-way vehicular traffic, there are sidewalks on both sides. The east side is for north-bound pedestrians, who go through INS document screening. The west side is for south-bound pedestrians, unhindered on the U.S. side. According to INS officials, the sidewalk for south-bound pedestrians was regularly used by north-bound illegals to enter the United States, thereby bypassing the INS controls within sight of the control point. A supervisory Border Patrol agent commented that the bridge was not considered to be within its patrolling jurisdiction, because it was a port of entry .The Border Patrol, however, attempted to apprehend illegal crossers once they were in El Paso, the same as if the illegal aliens had crossed the river and entered through a hole in the fence. An INS official also commented that plans are now underway to rebuild the bridge without the south-bound pedestrian sidewalk.

By configuring its border control posture to apprehend illegal aliens after they had entered the United States, the Border Patrol in effect gave a free ride to professionals who for a fee assisted aliens in finding the most vulnerable points of entry. It also resulted in the apprehension of an estimated one out of every two or three illegal entrants. Those apprehended would normally opt for voluntary departure from the United States and be escorted across a bridge back into Mexico, and often were back illegally in the United States as fast as the Border Patrol agent could apprehended the same individual three times during the course of one night-time tour of duty.

Another disadvantage of the channeled entry-apprehension approach to border control in a populated area, such as the El Paso sector, was that the Border Patrol would occasionally detain U.S. citizens and legal residents, leading to numerous complaints' and law suits. This was a serious problem at a public high school beside the border, where some illegal crossers regularly sought to hide among the students.

Border Patrol agents were not assigned just to apprehending illegal entrants near the border, but also to intercepting those who had evaded the first line of defense by patrolling the El Paso airport and checking busses, trains and other vehicles as they left the El Paso area. In addition, the Border Patrol maintained control operations at points in El Paso where illegal entrants regularly engaged in selling Mexican products, such as cigarettes.

This was the situation that characterized the border control approach prior to launching Operation Blockade. A new Chief Border Patrol Agent, Silvestre Reyes, was assigned to the El Paso sector in July 1993. He had tested different forms of border control in his previous assignment in South Texas as chief of the McAllen Sector near Brownsville.

Launching the Operation

Chief Reyes states that his proposal for Operation Blockade derived from his successful experience with similar operations. In the Brownsville area in 1988 and 1989, he tried stationing Border Patrol agents on the border in sufficient strength to deny illegal aliens an initial entry into the United States. The results indicated that there was an immediate deterrent effect: however, in the McAllen Sector he did not have available sufficient manpower to maintain that deployment for an extended period.

The manpower resources in the El Paso Sector, at about 600 agents, offered a more attractive long-term prospect for front-line border control. Accordingly, Chief Reyes proposed an effort to shut down illegal crossings by using overtime to establish an around-the-clock presence of agents in sufficient numbers to assure control along the entire stretch of frontier where the illegal entry traditionally occurred. In addition, funds were made available to repair the border fence in the downtown area. This proposal was approved in Washington, D.C., and funds to implement it were made available through end-of-fiscal-year reprogramming.

According to INS officials in Washington, the proposed El Paso operation was not seen as significantly different from a series of other strengthened Border Patrol operations conducted periodically at other points. It was not anticipated that it would excite national or international interest or controversy.

Although the record is not entirely clear, it appears that official coordination of preparations for Operation Blockade did not extend beyond the separate INS-El Paso jurisdiction that has responsibility for controlling the legal ports of entry.

Clearly, the public on both sides of the border and the civilian authorities were not aware of the impending operation. Two days before the September 19 initiation of the operation, the respective U.S. and Mexican Consuls General in Juarez and El Paso met and publicized their ongoing efforts to institutionalize bilateral consultations at the border to manage current or future friction. It appears that they had no hint that a major change in traditional ways of managing border control was looming around the corner.

Press accounts and information from within the El Paso municipal government indicate that the local government was also surprised by the operation. This lack of coordination would appear to have run the risk of leaving municipal authorities responsible for reacting to a fait accompli, even though it might have operational implications, such as the need for a police response to disturbances that might have erupted in the city.

There is also evidence that policy-level officials in Washington were caught by surprise by the operation. This seems to be the case with the Department of State, which has responsibility for bilateral relations with Mexico, and was actively engaged as were other departments of government in achieving congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Within INS there have been indications that some officials at the political level were not aware of the operation, despite the fact that it was approved there. If true, this may result from the fact that the INS was still in transition at the time, with a new director nominated but not yet confirmed or on board.

Implementation and Results

The start of Operation Blockade in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 19, apparently succeeded in catching the alien smugglers and the illegal commuters who live in Mexico but work in El Paso completely by surprise. An example of the lack of public awareness of the operation is that the first indications in the print media did not occur until Monday, after it had been in place for a full day.

The operation consisted of stationing Border Patrol agents around the clock along the 20-mile stretch from Ysleta, to the east of El Paso, to Sunland Park to the west. In the downtown El Paso area, the agents were stationed within line of sight of each other and were positioned most heavily at usual points of border penetration, such as the railroad bridges. A unit was assigned to the north end of the international bridge to deter illegals entering the United States by using the south-bound pedestrian sidewalk. To accomplish all this, the normal Border Patrol forces in the central El Paso area were augmented by 75-100 agents from Ysleta and interior operations in the district. This concentrated 400 of the district's 650 agents on the central El Paso border area.

Other operations, such as patrolling the airport and other inland points, also had to be continued, so the border operation could be maintained around the clock only by a large amount of overtime work. Reports of the additional resources committed to implement the operation generally cited the amount of $300,000 for the two week effort, some of which was spent on repairing the border fence to eliminate the holes in it.

The impact of the operation was immediate. The usual level of attempted entry and apprehensions dropped off dramatically. According to the Border Patrol, after the operation was launched, the number of apprehensions fell to less than 200 per day from an average daily level of 800 to 1000. (Total recorded apprehensions of illegal aliens in the El Paso Sector in FY 1992 were about282,000.) The vast majority of the illegal entrants are Mexicans 98% by one INS estimate and as many as half are destined for jobs or looking for work in El Paso rather than seeking to permanently reside in the United States

According to INS public affairs officer Doug Mosier, the number of apprehensions in FY 1993 prior to launching the operation was running 16 percent above the previous year's level. According to Mosier, on November 8, seven weeks after the start of the operation, the average level had decreased to about 125 per day. Chief Reyes, on the same date, referred to apprehensions varying between 140-175 per day, with an average of about 150. Whichever statistic is used, this represents about one-eighth of the pre-operation level.

One important indicator of success in controlling the border is how the deterrent effect applies in stopping illegal entry into the interior of the United States: in other words, not just deterring commuter-type illegal entry into El Paso. The measure of this test of effectiveness should be found in apprehension levels at the airport and on trains, busses or other vehicles leaving the El Paso area. Chief Reyes states that apprehensions resulting from train checks have decreased by 90 percent. Airport apprehensions, regularly numbering in the hundreds, and which hit a record level of 1,034 last July 4, are now averaging 8-15 per day.

These statistics offer a clear measure of the success of the new border control deployment. They also offer a standard for comparison over the longer term to determine whether the effects are eroded by lapses in control or by the ingenuity of local illegal crossers and professional people and commodity smugglers. The significance of the statistics above is that, if the lower level continues to point to an effective deterrent to entry, this means that the diversion of personnel resources from inland control operations to the border line can be sustained. This is because the reduced number of illegal border crossers can be dealt with by the lower number of agents assigned to these internal operations.

An additional aspect of the new operations in the El Paso sector is a decision to toughen the response of the Border Patrol to repeat illegal border crossers, known as Entered Without Inspection (EWI) violators. The standard operating procedure was to monitor traditional crossing points for illegals via about ten, low-light intensity television cameras, alert the agents by radio, apprehend as many as possible, take them to the processing center, and notify them of their option to be voluntarily returned to Mexico which virtually all chose or to appear before a judge (which could result in a few weeks detention). The toughened response is a decision not to offer voluntary departure in the case of flagrant repeat EWI violators, but rather to enter them in deportation proceedings.

The effect of deportation rather than voluntary departure besides the detention of the individual, which means no opportunity to work in the United States during the interim is that the deportee becomes ineligible to enter the United States legally for five years. That in itself is probably of little deterrent value, but when it is coupled with a more severe penalty as a felony for reentering the United States in violation of that provision, the consequence is clearly more costly to the illegal cross-border commuter. Border Patrol officials at their El Paso Detention Facility indicated that rather the miniscule number of deportation cases previously, there are now 10-15 per day.

Because of the nature of the historical and family ties in the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso metropolitan area, one aspect of Border Patrol operations that was especially problematic resulted from apprehensions of illegal aliens who succeeded in entering populated areas of El Paso. With 70-75 percent of the citizens and legal residents of Hispanic descent, as are nearly all of the illegal entrants, the Border Patrol occasionally would apprehend the wrong person, thinking it had the person who the cameras had just spotted climbing through the fence.

According to Chief Reyes, at the time that Operation Blockade was launched, there were 76 pending court cases against the INS as a result of mistaken identity incidents inherent in this environment. One especially conflictive point was at Bowie High School, which is immediately on the U.S. side of the border after crossing the Rio Grande. Illegal aliens reportedly intentionally sought the cover of merging into groups of students as a way to elude apprehension. Lawsuits alleging discriminatory treatment were filed against the Border Patrol specifically because of efforts to pursue illegal aliens on the grounds of this school.

Chief Reyes noted on November 8 that, since assuming the new operational deployment of deterrence rather than apprehension, there has not been a single new complaint from the public. He pointed out in a similar vein that there had not been a single shooting incident involving his forces since then, either. Perhaps also symptomatic of the success of the new border control deployment was the following statement made by Paul Strelzin, the Principal of Bowie High School, that appeared in the September 21 El Paso Times: "I think it's great to put these agents on the line and keep people out."

Contextual Aspects

The foregoing analysis focused on the positive results of the Operation Blockade in increasing the effectiveness of the Border Patrol. There are also significant positive aspects of the operation in terms of its impact on El Paso and the United States in general that are addressed later in this paper. However. some negative aspects of the operation merit noting. especially so because. in the view of the writer. they might have been avoided as part of advance planning.

First of these is the operation's name. "Blockade" according to Webster's dictionary (1st meaning) is the "isolation by a warring nation of a particular enemy area by means of troops or warships to prevent passage of persons or supplies." That is a meaning in English (or as blocqueo in Spanish) that brings to mind U.S. quarantine operations against Cuba or Haiti and implies entirely shutting down the flow of goods and/or people. According to several public commentators in El Paso, the initial public perception in Mexico was that the border at El Paso had been closed by the operation to all passage, not just that of illegal entrants. This perception was, of course, belied quickly by evidence that the bridges were still open to legal entry of persons and goods. However, that incorrect understanding of the blockade continued to persist in inland areas of Mexico.

The INS at a senior level acknowledges that it already understands that "Blockade" was an unfortunate misnomer. This is clear in the decision to drop the name when the operation entered its long-term phase. The new and on-going term Operation Hold the Line is apt, although a measure of its success will be when the new deployment is understood to be business-as-usual rather than an operation.

A second problem of the operation resulted from the related INS inspection operation at the bridge ports of entry. Anticipating a possible upsurge in attempted illegal entry via the bridges when the usual routes were shut down, the INS increased its inspection strength with 10-12 additional officers from Dallas. During the first week of operations, INS reports that mala fide applications for entry were up from 10-12 per day to 20-90 (with a high of 94).

Anecdotal information suggests that some of the increased deterrence of illegal entry at the bridges was not just of persons presenting false border crossing cards or falsely claiming U.S. citizenship, but also persons used to crossing into El Paso for shopping who had no other documentation than the crossing card and had that card confiscated until the individual could return with the requisite proof of residence and employment in Mexico.

The border crossing card confiscations became rapidly and widely communicated in Ciudad Juarez and the interior of Mexico and reinforced the "blockade" image. It is conceivable that to the extent that this anecdotal information is correct it may be due at least in part to INS reinforcements who were not experienced with handling entry procedures at El Paso.

The last issue that may be seen as a negative aspect of the Operation Blockade experience relates to the apparent lack of coordination with local officials in preparation for the operation. One possible fallout from being caught unaware might have been a negative attitude toward the operation by El Paso Mayor Francis. That apparently did not happen, although he laid down a public marker in comments to the press that he did not consider that he had been adequately prepared for what was to happen. An aide to the Mayor stated that Mayor Francis was not aware of the operation until after it was in progress.

It would seem essential in this type of operation that local officials who might have to respond to rioting or protest activities caused by a border control operation have advance knowledge and the information necessary to plan adequately. The nature of the cross border linkage between the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez communities suggests that the same consideration be shown to the local government officials on both sides.

Whether it would be possible to alert local officials (and national officials, if the potential repercussions were judged likely to assume national importance) to an intensive border control enforcement operation without it becoming public knowledge is a valid question. The issue to be considered in that context is whether the effect of the operation would be jeopardized or undermined if it became public knowledge. If not, there would seem to be little justification to spring the operation as a surprise.

Public Support and Criticism

There appears to have been no scientific public opinion poll regarding Operation Blockade. However, the media and the Mayor's office conducted surveys by asking the public to call and offer support or criticism. These non-controlled sampling efforts were unanimous in finding wide-spread public support.

The Border Patrol indicated that agents were receiving major public expressions of support, such as "thumbs up" signs from motorists, and green ribbons tied on cars. The El Paso Times reported on September 23 that calls were running 10 to 1 in favor. Even when El Paso residents were asked if they would be willing to pay higher taxes, if that were necessary to continue to keep out undocumented aliens, the response was favorable (210 yes, 25 no).

Nevertheless, a minority were outspokenly negative. The most prominent critic was Roman Catholic Bishop Pefia. According to Mayor Francis, though, Bishop Pefia was "pilloried" in the press and in public commentary for his anti-Operation Blockade comments.

A representative of the Border Rights Coalition publicly likened the operation to the erection of a Berlin Wall between the two communities. A community development worker referred to the operation as a "bullying" deployment and expressed concern that it plays into the hands of nationalistic chauvinists who would blame El Paso's problems on Juarenses.

Many of the community representatives interviewed for this report were critical of the way in which the operation was undertaken, but not necessarily its intent. The general view was that the apparently covert planning of the operation had entirely disregarded the human element, i.e., the people on both sides of the border who were directly affected by it. At the same time, several acknowledged that the previous border control procedure, allowing illegal aliens easy access to El Paso and then attempting their apprehension, was less humane than a policy that deterred the initial effort. These commentators generally recognized potential long-term benefits for El Paso, if the deterrent operation can be maintained effectively, in terms of decreased burdens for the community for welfare and crime control programs, as well as a possible decrease in unemployment.

Local and National Impact

The foregoing discussion of the two-week Operation Blockade and the ongoing Operation Hold the Line focused on border control operations, per se, discussed in terms of decreased illegal entry and a lack of complaints from El Paso residents. However, the El Paso City residents were much more than spectators to the efforts of the Border Patrol to control this major crossing point for illegal immigrants, drugs and contraband. That is clearly the message expressed in the editorial position taken by the El Paso Times, cited above. The following discussion focuses on the community-related issues both at the local and national levels.

Cross-Border Shopping

The heightened control efforts at the ports of entry had a significant impact on the level of normal cross-border shopping in the South El Paso business district, which depends on border crossers for ninety percent of its sales. These businesses in the city center immediately suffered a negative impact from Operation Blockade. Some merchants stated that sales were at a small fraction of normal, i.e., far fewer than what might have been anticipated from any loss of business to illegal crossers. Business interests estimate that the money spent by illegal crossers on shopping would not amount to more than three percent of all Mexican outlays in El Paso. INS data that put the level of post-Operation Blockade crossings near normal further muddied the waters on the issue of lost sales. As noted above, however, some early impact may have related to the incorrect impression among Mexican would-be shoppers that the border was blockaded and/or that they ran the risk of having their border crossing card confiscated, or simply that they would encounter greater difficulties at the border resulting from the new operation or from would-be illegal crossers who were protesting on the Ciudad Juarez entry points to the bridges.

El Paso merchants outside the downtown border concentration of retail outlets, however, reported that was no impact whatsoever on their sales, and some of them estimated that as many as 15-25 percent of their shoppers are from Mexico. The difference between these appraisals would appear to be in the fact that the merchants at malls that serve the general El Paso public would generally cater to Mexicans who enter in vehicles, and may be assumed to be wealthier Juarenses than the mainly pedestrian border crossers catered to by the South El Paso merchants. In any case, near the end of the two-week initial border control operation, South El Paso merchants were claiming sales were only 10-15 percent below normal.

Domestic Workers

With half or more of the illegal border crossers filling or seeking jobs in El Paso and surrounding areas, it clear that the operation had to have had a major impact on the lives of the residents on the U.S. side of the border just as clearly as it had to have a major impact on the Mexican side. The one sector of El Paso society not heard from in letters to the editor or in public protest were the employers of the illegal aliens. If their "off the books" employee was a house cleaner the problem was probably largely an inconvenience. However, if the Mexican worker was a nanny, the impact would have been more severe. A local official commented that, if the operation continues to be effective in the long-term, there will be pressures to expand alternative means of child care. It should be noted also, however, that during Operation Blockade, according to official sources, there were 500 unemployed persons seeking positions as maids with the employment service in El Paso, 230 registered for child care positions, and 1,200 listed as seeking construction work.

Agricultural Workers

Anecdotal information indicated some significant hardships on U.S. local agricultural interests. One chili farmer, for example, is said to have lost most of his crop because it was scheduled for harvest just as Operation Blockade was launched. The farmer had planned to hire illegal casual laborers. Another account was of a farmer who went to the local employment service and was told that there were no workers available. Problems in agricultural harvesting were likely due to the producer's reliance on illegal labor. The national Commission on Agricultural Workers issued a report earlier this year documenting that there is a surplus of agricultural workers in the United States. It also noted that, because of the surplus of workers, the employer sanctions and legalization program of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act have not helped agricultural workers obtain better working conditions.

The immigration law also provides for the legal entry of temporary agricultural workers under certain conditions. There is no reason that El Paso area agriculturalists, who should not have been employing illegal aliens in the first place, could not have legally obtained the workers they needed to harvest their crops.

Skilled Workers

An El Paso trade union official indicated that, unlike unskilled workers who are in direct competition with illegal aliens, skilled workers are not similarly disadvantaged. He said this is because of their skills and training levels. He pointed out that this factor also will serve to protect U.S. jobs in a post-NAFTA environment. If less-skilled workers are available at a third of the prevailing wage rate, that will not be attractive to employers if inexperience causes the installation of a delicate piece of machinery or engineering to be done wrong, and it then has to be torn out and reinstalled. The number of hours of labor will be three times greater, in addition to the greater inconvenience. His experience is that employers are willing to pay higher wages to have the assurance that the job will be done right the first time.

Other Effects

The trade union official cited above also noted a non-job-related cost to El Paso residents from living on the border. He pointed out that many legal workers in El Paso live in Ciudad Juarez. As a result, they buy and register their cars in Mexico. This implies not only lost sales and sales tax revenue in El Paso but increases the number of motorists who do not have mandatory insurance. The result is higher insurance costs for El Paso residents, in part because of the high incidence of auto theft and in part because of uninsured accidents. This cost would appear not to be an illegal alien issue, however, because those driving into El Paso each day from residences in Ciudad Juarez most likely are U.S. citizens or residents. It is not, therefore, an aspect of life on the border that is apt to change with the new control effort.

An El Paso County Judge made a related observation. Because some El Paso workers live in Juarez, they are not paying property taxes which support schools and other social programs in El Paso. Implicit in this comment is a recognition that some of these Juarez residents are, nonetheless, using El Paso's school and social services. As this cost to the El Paso economy relate primarily to persons who could live on the U.S. side, it does not apply to illegal aliens. However, to the extent that illegal workers are taking jobs that otherwise would be filled by citizens and residents who reside in El Paso, enhanced border control could prove to have a positive repercussion. Offsetting any expectation of significant benefits, however, should be a recognition that jobs made attractive to El Paso residents by lessened competition from illegal aliens would not likely make the difference between the worker being a home owner or not.


El Paso authorities are reluctant to suggest that there is a close relationship between the crime rate and illegal border crossers, because that plays into stereotyping the illegal entrants as criminals, which is not a valid description of most of these crossers. However, crime statistics on the incidence of auto theft in El Paso were so dramatic that all commentators noted that Operation Blockade had a positive impact in this area.

On September 24, the El Paso Times reported that auto thefts for the first several days of Operation Blockade, compared to the same period of time before the operation, were down from 54 to 26. The next day the newspaper reported that the decrease was from 72 to 35 auto thefts. A news account on September 30 after a week and a half of the operation indicated that the level of car thefts had been reduced to about 60 from about 110 per week. The only explanation that would appear to account for the drop in car thefts following the start of Operation Blockade is that some of the thieves were among the Juarez population that was deterred from crossing into the United States by the operation.

INS officials noted that their border control operation is designed to control persons, vehicles, and goods coming north, but that the only control on southbound vehicles (that would be needed to stop stolen cars from entering Mexico) is exercised by the Mexican border authorities. They observed that the El Paso police also could check southbound vehicles for ownership. Former El Paso Mayor Bill Tilney said that the police had from time to time mounted document checks on southbound vehicles with Texas license plates. He also noted that there have been numerous efforts to enlist the Mexican authorities to help control against the entry of stolen cars.

El Paso police Sgt. Lalo Balderama was quoted in the September 29 El Paso Times as stating that overall crime was down by 16 percent from pre-Operation blockade levels. It is not clear what percent of the overall figure is made up of auto theft, but other police statements indicated that the level of burglaries, killings, assaults and other violent crimes did not change significantly with the new border control deployment.

Anecdotal information, however, indicated petty criminal activity experienced a significant decline. The South El Paso merchants, who claimed a major decrease in sales during the initial border control operation, also stated that shoplifting had similarly declined. Others pointed to a vast change in the atmosphere in the South El Paso area as a result of an almost total absence of child and adult panhandlers, automobile window washers (for tips), street vendors of "chiclets" gum, and illegal (non-taxed) sales of Mexican and U.S. cigarettes.

Similarly, prostitutes had disappeared from one area of the South El Paso near City Hall. El Paso Mayor Larry Francis was quoted in the September 24El Paso Times as commenting that "I walked through downtown and all the underworld was gone. Particularly the pickpockets and transvestites weren't there."

INS officials commented that Operation Blockade should also have some crime-related benefits on the Mexican side of the border. They noted that two notorious criminal gangs, the puente negra and la secta groups had preyed on illegal crossers, especially at the railroad bridge sites, where there were regular assaults and some related murders. Since the onset of the new deterrent operation, there was a drop off of similar gang-related activities on the Mexican side of the border.

A tangential issue that researchers might pursue is whether a more difficult prospect of crossing the border whether at Ciudad Juarez and El Paso or frontier-wide would not have a positive effect on deterring Mexicans from the interior of the country from congregating at the frontier. To the extent that this might happen, it could have the effect of easing the difficulty of governing the teeming Mexican border cities and caring for their citizens.

Local Governmental

Costs El Paso Mayor Francis in testimony in Washington on September 29 noted that the city's demographer had calculated that illegal immigration cost the taxpayers about $30 million each year for infant health care, education and law enforcement. He equated this with about one-fifth of the city's $164 million budget. This was a ballpark estimate, he noted, because there are legal prohibitions against establishing nationality at the time of treatment in health facilities. Health care for the new born children of illegal immigrants at El Paso County's Thomason Hospital was estimated to be $6.4 million.

Sources familiar with operations at Thomason Hospital, however, observed that there was no decline in births following the start of Operation Blockade. In fact the number increased. This did not necessarily mean that the mayor's estimate was incorrect. Persons familiar with the issue said that in recent years, pregnant Mexican women have more frequently come to El Paso during the last trimester to live with a relative and receive pre-natal medical benefits before the birth. Thomason requests evidence of the mother's residence in El Paso, but accepts a utility bill receipt as the necessary proof .

After Mayor Francis' testimony on these costs became known in El Paso, it was subjected to questioning. The director of Thomason Hospital labeled the estimate on hospital expenditures as "crazy" and said it was not based on data from the hospital. In response, Mayor Francis indicated that the cost data were put together hurriedly for the testimony, and estimates had to be used, because hard data were not available. He noted that the medical cost of hospital delivery care abuse was derived by comparing addresses in hospital records with actual addresses, and all false or incorrect addresses were attributed to non-residents.

This practice of Mexicans giving birth at Thomason Hospital is generally considered to be prevalent, despite the hospital director's disclaimer. However, rather than this occurring simply because the mother wants her child to be a U.S. citizen, a knowledgeable worker at the hospital suggested that the attraction of a modern medical facility equipped to deal with, complications may be equally attractive. The implication is that if birthright citizenship to these babies of illegal aliens were eliminated by law or constitutional amendment, as some law makers have proposed, the impact on births at a hospital like Thomason might not be a dramatic decline.

Some, or perhaps many, of these women abusing the U.S. medical services may be entering the U.S. legally on border crossing cards. However, because they are overstaying the 72-hour authorized entry period, they, too, become illegal aliens in the United States. This is not to say, however, that they establish permanent illegal residence in the United States. Most are believed to return to Mexico after the birth in El Paso.

The situation is simi1ar for the public education system. Students need only provide a local address when registering and provide a utility bill from that location as evidence that they live there. It is generally accepted that some Mexican children are in the El Paso public school system, but discriminatory treatment against illegal immigrants is precluded by the Supreme Court's Plyler decision. Mayor Francis estimated that $9.7 million are spent per year on these children's education and the related free or reduced cost lunch program. This estimate was based on two percent of the students being illegal non-resident aliens.

A newspaper reporter provided an example of the possible illegal use of El Paso's school system in an interview of a man in Ciudad Juarez who lamented that he had lost his job in El Paso because of Operation Blockade. This man went on to bemoan the fact that he and his wife were separated from their daughter, whom friends in El Paso were caring for so that she could continue to go to school there. The story did not make clear whether the child in question might have been a U.S. citizen.

Finally, operating costs for the police associated with illegal immigration, according to Mayor Francis, amount to $2.5 million per year in processing costs. An additional $13 million are spent at the county detention facility, much of which is for illegal entrants. Francis noted that there are several other areas of municipal and county expenses that were not included in his $30 million price tag. Other areas would include preventative medicine programs, public housing, and other social programs.


Any assessment of the effects of the current preventative stance of the Border Patrol at El Paso must include numerous aspects: the tangible results of better border control, the impact on the local community and the nation at large and, especially, the issues of the lasting impact and replicability to other border areas. A visit to El Paso in November, seven weeks after the launch of the new stance, provided an indication that some of the early results may have longer-range duration, but it is still too early to arrive at more than tentative conclusions.

At this time, the results of the Border Patrol's new deterrent deployment suggest the answers to the following questions:

How can the results of Operation Blockade and the ongoing deterrent deployment be assessed?

The irony of assessing the effectiveness of Operation Blockade is that the customary measure of success of Border Patrol operations is the number of apprehensions, whereas the objective of the new posture of deterrence to illegal entry , if successful, has to result in decreased apprehensions. It may be surmised that in the past the Border Patrol was not as concerned about illegal border crossers who were working or looking for work in El Paso as about those who were attempting to enter the interior of the United States as permanent settlers. This approach would explain a concentration of resources on apprehending those illegal aliens seeking to travel inland.

What Chief Reyes appears to have succeeded in demonstrating is that less personnel are needed for this secondary control deployment (at the airport, rail lines and roads) if the number of illegal border crossers is sharply reduced by a more effective presence on the border. The measure of success then is the decrease in attempted border crossing -as measured by decreased apprehensions at the border and decreased numbers of illegal aliens attempting to get inland -again as measured by decreased apprehensions at interior checkpoints.

The obvious potential flaw in these measures of success is that decreased apprehensions could also signify less effective vigilance. This fact suggests that periodic monitoring of the effectiveness of the inland operations would be advisable to confirm that the border presence continues to be an effective deterrent and that the decreased inland resources continue to be adequate for that second line of control.

The drop off in complaints against the Border Patrol from El Pasoans is clearly another important indicator of success. Both of these indicators reduced apprehensions and citizen complaints can be readily monitored over time.

A third aspect of the new Border Patrol operation, measurable only over the long-term, is the effect of increased deportations of repeat border violators. This should have a deterrent effect if, as planned, it is seen as a credible threat to put egregious offenders behind bars. However, many of these violators may be persons seeking work in El Paso rather than in the interior of the United States, and the higher cost of their detention and processing through the legal system raises cost-benefit issues. Nevertheless, a tougher response to repeat violators may be more manageable in conjunction with the improved deterrent deployment. This effort is also likely to be facilitated by new photo identification and computerized record-keeping capabilities that are on order for the El Paso Processing Center.

A deterrent effect due to an increased number of deportations of repeat violators should result in a decrease in the incidence of repeat border violators. But, this will be difficult to distinguish from the overall decrease in apprehensions that result from the improved border control. Nevertheless. if the new tougher approach does not represent a significant allocation of resources. it may be a worthwhile effort even though it may be difficult to measure its effectiveness. One fact that may be counted on in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez frontier community is that any change in Border Patrol operations as significant as an increased incidence of deportation will not go unnoticed on the other side of the border .

...and the effect on the community?

Short-term impacts of the new frontier operation on El Paso, described earlier, affected the community's retail outlets, employers of household help, agricultural interests, crime rates, and use of local facilities and services underwritten by the taxpayer. Doris Meissner, the newly named INS Commissioner, suggested during her confirmation hearing that the Operation Blockade experience should be assessed in terms of its possible negative impact on the local community, as well as the increased deterrence to illegal border crossers.

Since sales to cross-border shoppers appear to be returning to normal. the reduction in pick-pocketing and shop-lifting that coincided with preventing illegal entry may more than offset the cost of any lost spending by the illegal crossers. As long as the objective of the new deployment does not have the effect of making legal crossings more difficult, there is no reason that the ongoing border presence should have any significant effect on shopping in the South El Paso area or elsewhere, unless it generates an effective boycott by Mexican shoppers motivated by nationalism a result that would have been expected to appear before now. The Christmas shopping season will provide a test of this hypothesis. If sales in the South El Paso retail district are at or near last year's level. the long-term impact of Operation Blockade will be shown to be negligible in terms of lost sales. And, still there may be continuing benefits from decreased losses related to petty crime.

Longer-term statistics on crime in general, and auto theft in particular, will provide a further indication of the extent decreased illegal cross-border entry relates to decreased crime. Although Ciudad Juarez criminal elements operating in El Paso might be expected to be the least deterred by the greater difficulty in gaining access to the United States, the greater chances of being apprehended while crossing the border and the increased chance of deportation of repeat offenders may deter the entry of this element.

Less easy to assess, but of no less importance, is the issue of employment. Employers of illegal aliens are naturally unlikely to publicly complain about the inconvenience to them from the deterrence of their would-be workers from entering El Paso. However, a labor economist such as Cornell University's Vernon Briggs, would suggest that the focus should not be on the inconvenience to prospective employers of illegal aliens and any related increases in the cost of goods and services, but rather on how market forces attract unemployed or under-employed U.S. citizens or legal resident aliens into these jobs. It is clear that there are significant potential tangible and intangible benefits that may be gained from this effect. The tangible benefits are decreased dependence on unemployment and welfare benefits. Intangible benefits relate to greater self-image, decreased attraction to crime, improved environments for the family, etc.

Finally, the impact on the El Paso municipal and county budgets may not represent the panacea that Mayor Francis would hope for. Illegal use by Mexicans of El Paso's social services probably depends more on the absence of any effective screening process than on the ability of aliens to enter the city without inspection. The one area in which there may be an early significant benefit is costs associated with crime prevention. However, benefits should accrue to the users of other government services when their use by illegal border crossers diminishes.

...and the effect on the country?

Although the El Paso border sector represents only a fraction of the illegal border crossing problem, apprehensions there represented about one-quarter of the nation's total reported by the INS last year. It is the second most used crossing area on the southwestern border. To the extent that those apprehensions were of persons whose destination was El Paso rather than the interior of the country , the decrease in detentions by seven-eighths will not necessarily indicate a proportionate decrease in permanent settlers coming in illegally through El Paso. But the success of the new Border Patrol deployment in El Paso in deterring illegal entry is great enough that it represents a significant contribution to any overall level of effort to gain greater border control.

The benefit to the country from reduced illegal immigration is similar to the benefits to the El Paso community. It means jobs being freed up and made more attractive to citizens and residents who may be unemployed. It means public sector resources freed up for other needy persons living here legally. It may also mean a decrease in crime and other societal problems. Finally, and more intangibly, the decrease in the exploitation of desperate illegal aliens by paying sub-standard wages and conditions, may be a positive contribution to ethnic relations in the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez community.

The related question is what are the costs? There undoubtedly are costs to Mexico if the United States is less available as a safety valve for unemployed Mexicans. This is a potential long-term problem if it were to cause social instability and violence in Mexico. However, if that were a real concern of the United States, it arguably should be addressed frontally rather than looking the other way to border violations. Moreover, there may also be costs to U.S. employers and consumers from a decreased availability of low cost labor. But this is belied by the results reported earlier this year of the national commission that studied the need of U.S. agriculture for foreign labor and found a surplus. There may be an adverse effect on employers of low-cost labor, but there also should be attendant benefits to the society in causing those employers to seek legally employable workers.

What are the resource implications suggested by the new Border Patrol deployment in El Paso?

The answer to this question is one of the most interesting lessons suggested by the El Paso operation. The early comment on both sides of the border. and the hope of some Juarenses. was that the operation would end when the two weeks of overtime funds ran out. Had that been the case. the impact of the operation would have been a momentary, minor blip on the screen of overall border control.

But Chief Reyes has demonstrated that the El Paso Border Patrol is able to sustain an effective, continuing front-line border control presence within available resources. As discussed above. this does not mean similar operations could also be done along the entire United States-Mexican border. But it does suggest that it would be less resource-intensive in jurisdictions with similar control challenges than was realized.

Does the new Border Patrol effort represent a viable long-term approach to more successful border control?

Yes. For El Paso it would appear to have long-term viability. Sufficient time has elapsed to reach a conclusion that much of the initial deterrent effect can be maintained for both illegal border crossers destined for El Paso and the interior of the country. This appears to be especially true for individuals who were tempted to cross illegally by the ease of access to El Paso. It is less clear to what extent the new control effort will be effective against professional smugglers. So far, however, it would appear that the deterrent effect also applies to the coyotes, although some of them may still be trying to figure out how to thwart the new border control or have gone elsewhere on the border.

To the extent that smugglers have shifted their operations elsewhere, the long-term impact will depend upon whether Border Patrol capabilities at the new target crossing points are able to meet the challenge. In the end. the effectiveness of better control over the nation's borders will depend on whether those seeking greater opportunity in the United States will stay home when they realize the odds for their success are not good. Some argue that. as long as there are both push and pull factors motivating the ambitious or desperate would-be immigrant. there will always be a way to get into the United States. This view relegates border control to a damage control mission.

Although there may be no absolutely effective deterrent system. the Operation Blockade experience indicates that successful penetration of the border at a rate of one to three successful, border violators for each one apprehended and returned across the border is unnecessarily high.

What factors contribute to the viability of the new deployment, and what circumstances work against it?

The conditions at El Paso are unique. and the experience there cannot necessarily be generalized to other border areas. But, it is clear that an increased Border Patrol presence equates with increased deterrence of attempted illegal entry. The issue for other border sectors is whether frontier characteristics and personnel resources allow a reallocation from inland patrol operations to border line deterrence. This probably would make sense only in areas of historically high rates of illegal entry. The San Diego sectors are a logical area to be considered for similar operations.

The physical characteristics of the El Paso Sector allowed the simultaneous closing off of easy access into El Paso by repairing the border fence at the same time that the around-the-clock presence of the Border Patrol was instituted. The combination of the two changes in deterrence succeeded where either of the two alone might not be similarly effective. For example, just repairing the fence would invite new penetration efforts. The increased presence, without the restored barrier fence, could invite efforts to mass enough would-be illegal crossers to overwhelm the Border Patrol units stationed at the breach points.

The foregoing analysis suggests that the current breaches in the continuous physical barrier in the San Diego region could undermine the effectiveness of an enhanced deterrent presence on the frontier, like that mounted at El Paso. The corollary is that, once the San Diego physical barrier enhancements have been completed, they should be backed up with permanent patrolling along them.

What is the bottom line?

Although there appears to be no inclination to treat the success in El Paso as an isolated experiment or to dismiss its replicability in other areas of the border, there will be pressures from some quarters to argue against replication. It seems clear, however, that the operation has received sufficient attention and positive comment at the local and national level that the momentum is with those who would build on this experience rather than those who would want to reverse it. Chief Reyes and his staff and the officials in Washington who supported his initiative deserve credit for launching what should prove to be a significant border control focus for the future.

End Notes

1 "Immigration, Population and Economic Growth in El Paso, Texas: The Making of an American Maquiladora" by David Simcox, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) Senior Fellow, CIS Paper Number 7, September 1993.

2 Bob Cook, Vice President, Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. As quoted in El Paso Times, September 28, 1993.