CHAPTER 8
Controlling the Border in El Paso del Norte:
Operation Blockade or Operation Charade?

David Spener


CHANGES IN THE BORDER-CROSSING GAME

In September 1993, on the eve of NAFTA, the new chief of the El Paso sector of the Border Patrol launched Operation Blockade in an effort to prevent unauthorized border crossing by Mexican nationals in the area. Strange as it may seem to the uninitiated observer, this represented a watershed change in strategy for the Border Patrol, which up until then had focused its energy on pursuing and apprehending unauthorized entrants on U.S. soil rather than preventing their entry in the first place.

The old apprehension- focused strategy involved Border Patrol agents roving the streets of El Paso in their vehicles and chasing down suspected “illegal aliens” in a game of cat and mouse that not infrequently exposed migrants, members of the community, and agents themselves to considerable risk of injury. In addition, 70 percent of the population in El Paso was Mexican, either by birth or by ancestry, making it possible for Mexican illegal entrants to easily blend into the community. This also made it quite easy for Border Patrol agents to mistake U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents for “illegal aliens,” resulting in frequent civil rights complaints from the community. Ultimately, a successful lawsuit was filed against the patrol, barring it from chasing migrants onto the campus of a high school located near the river downtown after agents repeatedly misidentified students and staff there as the aliens they were pursuing.

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