Vol. 14 No. 1 (January 2004)
OPERATION GATEKEEPER: THE RISE OF THE "ILLEGAL ALIEN" AND THE MAKING OF THE U.S.-MEXICO BOUNDARY by Joseph Nevins. New York: Routledge, 2002. 286 Pp. $17.95. Paper. ISBN: 0-415-93015-3.
Reviewed by: John C. Blakeman, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. John.Blakeman@uwsp.edu
In OPERATION GATEKEEPER, political geographer Joseph Nevins explores U.S. policy concerning the U.S./Mexican border. Nevins uses the federal government's Operation Gatekeeper policy, inaugurated in 1994, to frame his discussion and analysis of U.S. strategies for establishing and monitoring its border zone with Mexico, with the goal of thwarting illegal migration across the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Operation Gatekeeper mainly targeted the international boundary in California and Arizona, among other things more than doubling both the number of Border Patrol agents in the area (from 4,200 to 9,212) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service appropriations for the southwestern border (from $400 million to $800 million) (p.4). The increased number of agents and higher appropriations for better surveillance technology and other means of monitoring the boundary support Gatekeeper's strategy for preventing migrants from entering the U.S. As Nevins explains, the deterrent strategy of Gatekeeper was a significant departure from the traditional border policy of apprehending and returning migrants who do cross the border.
Nevins makes two main arguments. First, Operation Gatekeeper "was the outgrowth of short-term developments beginning in the 1990s that took place within a context formed by a variety of long- and medium-term political, economic, and cultural trends"(p.10). Trends that undergird Gatekeeper include the United States' growth as a nation-state and the creation of the "illegal immigrant" as a real threat to the political and social framework of the U.S. In addition, the growing regional integration along the U.S.-Mexican boundary in both economic and social terms means that the Gatekeeper policy represents a trade-off between anti-immigrant groups who wish to cut dramatically the flow of migrants into the United States, and pro-economic/free trade groups who hope to increase considerably the flow of goods and services across the boundary. Nevins' second argument posits that Gatekeeper has had a profound impact on U.S. immigration policy, as it has "made the boundaries of the United States and their accompanying social practices seem increasingly normal and unproblematic, thus placing them largely beyond question"(p.10). As a result, the U.S.-Mexico divide has changed from a "border (or a zone of transition) to a boundary (or a line of strict demarcation)" (p.13).
As a backdrop for his analysis of Operation Gatekeeper, Nevins provides an interesting and useful history of the evolution of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, and by so doing argues that changes in it are inseparable from the development of the American nation-state "with its intermittent territorial expansion and the associated redefinition of the boundary and its accompanying social relations" (p.15). Nevins explains how the U.S., acting through territorial conquest, annexation, and international agreement (especially the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848) gradually expanded its territory and solidified its control over its southwestern boundary. This "institutionalization and normalization" is an important change in the boundary, from a frontier with shifting lines of demarcation, to a tangible dividing line between the two counties. And, as Nevins notes, the process of turning the frontier into a real boundary also created social boundaries "distinguishing between desirable and undesirable immigrants and, more important, citizens and 'aliens' and their concomitant social relations" (p.37). Thus, not only did the boundary serve to separate the two countries internationally; it also constructed "social geographies" unique to the region that impact the later development of immigration and boundary policy.
Next, Nevins discusses the "dividing practices" along the boundary and argues that "state practices relating to immigration and boundary policing subject people to the law, distinguishing those who belong (and under what conditions) and those who do not, thus constructing subjects and identities" (p.53). He locates his discussion within a local context-the economic, social, and political relationships between San Diego, California, its bordering city Tijuana, Mexico. Focusing on the growth and development of these two intertwined cities, Nevins details how the state, through boundary policing and immigration policies, "helped to produce social boundaries between 'Americans' and 'Mexicans,' 'citizens' and 'aliens,' thus setting the stage for the 'war on illegals' in the United States that has emerged" (p.59).
The dividing practices that affect local economic, social, and political relationships along the U.S.-Mexico boundary add context to how Operation Gatekeeper develops. Linked with those dividing practices are what Nevins defines as the "medium-term" roots of Gatekeeper that are grounded in ideological and political developments at the national and local levels. Here Nevins discusses the "sharp rise" in official and public support for more immigration restrictions and boundary policing that started in the early 1970s and gathered steam throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Public support for a less porous U.S.-Mexico boundary was influenced by short-term factors, such as local political initiatives in California linking illegal immigration to sluggish economic conditions in the 1990s. As Nevins highlights, those local political programs fed into a growing national demand to deal with the "crisis of illegal immigrants," and Gatekeeper was as much a product of the "dialectical relationship" between national and local policymakers and institutions as it was the result of a "reflexive consciousness in favor of boundary and immigration enforcement" caused by the boundary itself and its "related sociogeographical practices" (p.62). Thus, not only was Gatekeeper a national response to a regional boundary, imposed from the national level upon the states; it was also a policy response to the local "social and territorial boundaries" between the United States and Mexico.
Nevins also discusses Operation Gatekeeper in the context of Proposition 187, the 1994 "Save Our State (SOS)" ballot initiative in California. The initiative, if approved by California voters, would deny public education, social services, and public health services to illegal immigrants. Intriguingly, Nevins argues that "we can thus interpret Operation Gatekeeper as a response to Proposition 187, and perhaps even an attempt to try to defeat it. By giving the impression that the Clinton administration was taking care of the perceived problem of boundary enforcement in southern California, it was the hope that the California electorate would feel less of a need to approve and implement Proposition 187" (p.92). Therefore, Operation Gatekeeper was not only again a national strategy for regulating and deterring illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico; it was also a political attempt-in Nevins' words-to circumvent an increasingly animated policy issue trumpeted by Republican political candidates in California.
Nevins concludes his analysis by focusing on some of the effects of Operation Gatekeeper, along with the significance of what he terms as the "bounding of the United States." Some of the effects that he mentions include bolstering of INS policing capacity along the border, creation of an Immigration Court at a border point of entry with the power to expedite hearings and deportations, and the overall order to the border region that Gatekeeper establishes. Nevins notes many negative and un-intended consequences too. For example, he speculates that Operation Gatekeeper's strategy of deterring illegal immigration may raise the "costs and risks of reentering the United States," thus encouraging illegal immigrants already in the United States to remain (p.128). And, even though Gatekeeper may deter unauthorized immigrants from getting into the U.S., it has also encouraged, ironically, increased criminal activity in the form of migrant smuggling enterprises that now occur all along the border (p.142).
OPERATION GATEKEEPER is a work of political geography, in that Joseph Nevins situates American public policy concerning the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration into "social geographical trends" at the local and national levels. As such, Nevins' work is not a standard legislative history of how Operation Gatekeeper came to be-indeed, legislative history is essentially absent from the book-nor is it a standard public policy analysis that looks at the development of a policy by government institutions, interest groups, and the like, along with some kind of empirical assessment of how that policy actually works. Nevins' goal is to show how social pressures interact with the geographical concerns and trends surrounding the U.S.-Mexico boundary and ultimately affect the development of national immigration and boundary control policy. Those who study immigration law and policy will certainly find the book of interest, since it adds a detailed understanding of how national immigration policy can be grounded in local social concerns, which themselves are grounded in geographical concerns arising out of an international boundary between the United States and Mexico.
Scholars and teachers with an interest in international law will also find the book insightful, since it adds depth to international legal issues on boundary determination, territoriality, and immigration. Extrapolating his analysis of Operation Gatekeeper to larger global issues, Nevins in his conclusion posits that national boundaries the world over are "growing in strength, physically and ideologically-at least with respect to unauthorized immigrants" (p.186). Indeed, as Nevins points out, it is often states with high levels of socioeconomic development that work to strengthen their borders against unauthorized immigrants, and in the process only perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities. Nevins does not delve into that argument in any detail, and only mentions it to suggest other ways of looking at and investing immigration policy and the creation of national boundaries. Yet, international law scholars will notice that Nevins does take issue with the dominant state-centered paradigm of international law based on relatively stable and defined national borders. Nevins does not set out to question in detail that paradigm, but his analysis of U.S. immigration policy supports the argument that international legal territoriality is more than just the positivistic delineation of national borders by political elites and sovereign governments. That is, with boundary and border regions most anywhere in the world, there may well be social and geographical pressures that subtly affect how a state deals with the issue of immigration, boundary crossings, economic trade, and a myriad of other issues. Indeed, recognizing, as does Nevins, that international borders may have certain non-legal characteristics based on custom, society, geography, and certainly economics, instead of just "the law," adds depth to our understanding of the law and politics of territories and borders that is so often overlooked in legal treatises and court cases.
OPERATION GATEKEEPER is suitable for undergraduate and graduate public policy courses that may have an immigration policy component. Others may find it useful for more advanced courses on international politics and international law that focus on certain issues in depth, such as territoriality, immigration policy, and perhaps even globalization. In general, Nevins' work complements well our understanding of immigration policy, U.S./Mexican relations, and the myriad problems associated with international boundaries.
Copyright 2004 by the author, John C. Blakeman.