In an effort to crack down on unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and significantly increasing fencing along the border. While the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (see also: NAFTA Spurs Mexican Migration, 1994), also implemented in 1994, increased the movement of goods and capital across the border, Operation Gatekeeper targeted and curtailed the movement of Mexican migrants, many of whom were compelled to relocate due to NAFTA’s unforeseen economic consequences. The budget for Immigration and Naturalization Services (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement) swelled from $400 million in 1993 to $800 million in 1997.
By militarizing the most populated areas of the border, Operation Gatekeeper aimed to prevent and deter crossings. Rather than reduce migration, however, Operation Gatekeeper shifted it; migrants rerouted their journeys to more dangerous areas with treacherous natural barriers. The demand for smugglers (often referred to as coyotes) also increased, raising the cost and risk of border crossing. The number of migrant deaths increased significantly during Operation Gatekeeper’s first years, leading immigrant rights activists to declare the situation a humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that more than 6,000 migrants have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper.