Turbulent events in California nearly two decades ago have helped create the conditions for the current backlash against illegal immigrants in Arizona.
Senate Bill 1070, the controversial law just approved in Arizona, has its roots in the anti-illegal immigrant movement that swept through California during the recession of the early 1990s and the border controls that were instituted on the California-Mexico border in response to it.
Photo by Omar BárcenaA section of border fence in Mexicali, Mexico.
Those controls dramatically reduced border crossings on the California stretch of the border – and helped transform the Arizona border into the favored crossing point, fueling the backlash against illegal immigrants in that state today.
What is happening in Arizona underscores the interconnectedness of the border, and how immigration reforms often have unintended -- and long delayed -- consequences.
In the early 1990s, nearly half of all migrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol across the entire 2,200-mile U.S.-Mexico border were being picked up in a 14-mile stretch of the California border near San Diego, running from the Otay Mountains through San Ysidro to Imperial Beach on the Pacific Ocean.
Descriptions of the scene on the California border at that time resemble those on the Arizona border today.
"Illegal border crossers overran the horse ranches of the rustic Tijuana River valley and the residential streets in the city of Imperial Beach," former LA Times reporter Ken Ellingwood wrote in his book "Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border." "Imperial Beach had become the immigration equivalent of Three Mile Island, a disaster of legendary lawlessness, and, as a result, a handy rhetorical backdrop for Republican and Demcorats alike to decry a border out of control."
"Throughout the 1980's and early 90's the 14-mile stretch of border in San Diego was hostile, violent, and out of control," wrote Glynn Custred, an emeritus professor of anthropology at CSU East Bay. "Crowds would gather on the Tijuana side and pelt border-patrol agents with rocks ...almost daily thousands of Mexicans would gather on the U.S. side, then dash forward en masse in what were known as banzai runs."
At the time, then-Gov. Pete Wilson was facing a tough re-election fight, and the movement to pass Proposition 187, the initiative intended to strip illegal immigrants of a range of public benefits, was gathering strength. Wilson seized on the immigration issue and used it successfully to turn around what was widely viewed as a losing campaign.
He sent an open letter to President Bill Clinton demanding that the federal government reimburse California to cover the costs of services provided to illegal immigrants – and had the state file two lawsuits seeking $2.3 billion in federal funds to cover those costs. He proposed a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.
In response, in October 1994, one month before California voters voted on Prop. 187, the Clinton administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector of the border. The goal, according to then-Attorney General Janet Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, was “prevention through deterrence” – to make it “so difficult and so costly to enter this country illegally that fewer individuals even try.”
It was based on a successful initiative, Operation Hold the Line, introduced a year earlier on the Rio Grande near El Paso. In a single year – 1992 to 1993 – apprehensions in El Paso had dropped from 285,781 to 79,688 would-be crossers.
On the San Diego sector of the border, the Army Corps of Engineers erected a fence made of steel mats used for landing pads during the Vietnam War, The Border Patrol force quadrupled. Lights, sensors and other surveillance equipment made the border far more difficult to cross than at any time in its history.
Administration officials reasoned that the new controls would make it far more difficult for migrants to cross into California and instead would push them into more hazardous desert terrain further East, where they would be easier to spot and apprehend. They also reckoned that fewer migrants would attempt to cross in the more dangerous sections of the border.
They were wrong. The flow did move eastwards – but migrants were not discouraged. In Arizona, isolated towns on the edge of the Sonoran Desert were transformed into major migration crossing points – crowded with massive reinforcements of Border Patrol agents, outfitted with surveillance and other equipment like those installed on the California border on one side and Texas on the other.
The flows into Arizona were further driven by the pull of the state's expanding economy, and, in particular, its booming housing industry.
"People have continued to migrate, they just have to try harder now," said Joseph Nevins. a professor of geography at Vassar College and author of "Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond."
Within a few years, the situation on the California and Arizona stretches of the border had been completely reversed.
In 1992, 565,821 migrants were apprehended in the San Diego sector, and a mere 71,036 in the Tucson sector. By 2000, 616,346 migrants were captured crossing in the Tucson sector (which includes Nogales and Douglas), while the numbers being apprehended in the San Diego sector kept dropping, to a low of 100,681 in 2002.
Despite apprehensions across the entire border, nearly half of all apprehensions are taking place on the Arizona border. "The border crossers found the next weakness in the dike, and that was essentially Arizona," Demetri Papademtriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. told me this week. "It continues to be ground zero for unauthorized entries."
Migrants were undeterred, even when hundreds of them died attempting to cross in the parched desert landscape made even more hazardous by abusive smugglers or "polleros," as well as roving bandits.
Just as occurred in California during the recession of the early 1990s, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants crossing the Arizona border have helped drive a crackdown against illegal immigrants in general.
The reaction to the mayhem on the border has been even more extreme than it was in California, in part because Arizona is a far more conservative state, and in part perhaps because the recession is far worse than it was during the Prop. 187 era.
In California, Latinos also occupy powerful positions in state and local government. They also constitute a growing portion of the electorate, makling it highly unlikely the California Legislature would approve anything remotely as tough as the Arizona law.
California has contributed to the anti-illegal immigrant mix in Arizona in other ways. Some of the most visible – and voluble – organizers against illegal immigrants, like Glenn Spencer, founder of the American Border Patrol, and Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which launched vigilante-like patrols on the border, both moved from California to Arizona in the past decade.
In California, according to the Congressional Research Service, Spencer's Voice of Citizens Together, which morphed into the American Patrol in 1992, was a significant force in mobilizing support for Prop. 187 under the "Save Our State" banner and collected 40,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.
After moving to Arizona in 2002, Spencer set up a "shadow Border Patrol" whose members roamed the border on all-terrain vehicles, using high-tech sensors and infrared video-cameras on model airplanes to spot migrants, and then posted images on their website to underscore the ineffectiveness of the real Border Patrol.
One of the reasons Spencer left California was because he believed California had been taken over by "reconquistas" from Mexico, and that the state was more or less a lost cause, while Arizona offered more fertile ground for his campaign against "invaders" from across the border.
The passage of Senate Bill 1070 may have proven him right.