'Death at the Border," a study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston, illuminates the violence at the root of government policies like Operation Gatekeeper. According to its authors, from 1993-96, nearly 1,200 illegal immigrants died while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. San Diego County had the greatest number of deaths: 194 immigrants. Another 30 have perished thus far in 1997.
Other deaths can be linked to Gatekeeper's heightened criminalization of entering immigrants and the "coyotes" who aid and abet them. Facing felony convictions and long prison terms--five years for the first offense, 15 years for a second--coyotes have resorted to increasingly desperate means of escaping arrest, thereby imperiling not only their own lives but those of their human cargo and anyone else who may get in their way. Since Operation Gatekeeper went into effect, no fewer than six violent car accidents have occurred in the San Diego area alone, leaving at least 15 dead and 68 injured.
Gatekeeper's emphasis on criminalization has produced another kind of problem: There are not enough jails and detention centers to house the apprehended. In San Diego, there is one federal jail--the 23-story Metropolitan Correctional Center--that can house 1,300 inmates. The mounting backlog of Gatekeeper-related cases has lengthened the average stay of its mostly Latino inmates--80% compared with a 26.3% average in similar federal institutions--from three months to more than six months. This has heightened anxiety among detainees, leading to more violence and suicide attempts; the facility's psychiatric ward is overcrowded. These conditions prompted the recent opening of the Miramar naval brig, but it closed days later after an inmate revolt. Detainees are still being held in jails as far away as Las Vegas, from which they are shuttled by plane or bus to hearings in San Diego.