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Dec. 18 2002 12:00 AM

Operation Gatekeeper and the politics of hunger

December afternoons at the San Ysidro/Tijuana border can get surprisingly chilly. When you lack the body heat generated by the digestive process, the cold gets a bit more intense.

Christian Ramirez sat in a plastic lawn chair, eyes closed. He wore a heavy coat and a fleece-lined hat with earflaps that fell to his chin. His friend Benjamin Prado leaned over and asked if he felt like talking. Ramirez opened his eyes and weakly agreed.

By Friday at 3 p.m., Ramirez had been without food for 84 hours. He sipped on a bottle of sugar water-”because the brain needs sugar,” explained Prado, who himself hadn't eaten anything for 46 hours. Both had prepared ahead of time for the fast, limiting their food intake in the previous week to liquids, fruits and vegetables. As for the actual no-eating part, after the first 30 hours, Prado said, “you can't really feel it.”

Prado, who heads the Raza Rights Coalition, and Ramirez, the director of the American Friends Service Committee, and about 150 other human-rights activists took part in a 100-hour fast that began Tuesday, Dec. 10, and lasted until 4 a.m. the following Saturday. No one else took it to the extent Ramirez did, however. Most, participants, in fact, offered moral support rather than forgo food.

The point of the fast was to draw awareness to Operation Gatekeeper, the 8-year-old border enforcement program intended to prevent non-U.S. citizens from illegally entering California from Mexico. Other states sharing a border with Mexico have similar programs in place, such as Arizona's Operation Safeguard and Texas' Operation Hold the Line.

A good portion of the $10.7 billion allocated for border enforcement under the new Homeland Security Bill goes into securing the U.S./Mexico border despite the fact no known terrorists have entered the U.S. through Mexico. Opponents of this enhanced enforcement attribute 2,200 migrant deaths in the past eight years to increasingly dangerous routes Mexican citizens will take to gain entry into the U.S., a fact, opponents say, Gatekeeper's architects acknowledged when the program was first started in 1994.

The fast was staged at a small campsite set up along the chain-link fence just in front of the International Port of Entry in San Ysidro. The site included a small tent filled with blankets and sleeping bags and a tarp-covered information table. Empty water containers sat between four plastic lawn chairs.

While Ramirez rested under the tarp, Prado and a couple of energetic volunteers constructed a public art display on the fence along the footpath leading to the entry gate. A board listing names of migrants who died trying to make it into the U.S.; wooden crosses for each year of Operation Gatekeeper and the number of deaths for that particular year; and a series of words in Spanish representing basic human rights and values-freedom, health, education, etc.-were secured to the fence with wire.

Prado said that initially they had informational flyers to hand out, but by Friday the flyers had been distributed to the masses of people who fill the pathway every morning beginning at 6 a.m. to wait for the busses that line up around the Camiones Way cul-de-sac. Late Friday afternoon, the pathway carried a steady stream of foot traffic coming and going in both directions. Most passersby gave the makeshift camp a quick glance. A few stopped to look at the banners Prado and company were putting up. That the camp was just across the street from the massive World Duty Free shop and well within earshot of the clanging revolving metal gate that signals a person's entry into Mexico were ironies not lost on the protest participants. It's become a credo of border critics that with NAFTA, goods can pass freely through the border; people, however, can't.

Though while Operation Gatekeeper was a tangible focus of the protest, Prado said the problem he'd like to solve runs far deeper than border enforcement. “The reality,” he said, “is the unjust socioeconomic system that forces people to their death. We knew NAFTA was going to have these types of consequences.”

For instance, he explained, small farmers in Central Mexico who used to subsist on profits from their crops now have to compete with imported, U.S.-grown produce that travels tariff-free across the border. “Farmers sell their crops and migrate north to work in the fields,” he said.

This was the third such protest Prado and Ramirez had organized in as many years. Publicly staged fasting such as theirs has been called political performance art by some, heroic by others. In some cases the fasters are holding out for something, using their own well-being as a bargaining tool. In other cases, it's simply meant to draw awareness to a cause. It's perhaps the most personal form of political protest, suggesting an intimate connection to an issue, and whether or not we agree with the issue underlying the fast, it's difficult not to drum up some empathy, or at least a moment of pause for what's driving someone to willingly enter such an unpleasant physical state.

“Subjectively, you do stop and wonder if it would be easier to hold a picket, for example, and go home to a warm meal and a warm bed,” Ramirez said. Besides, he and Prado have tried all other routes. “We've attempted to contact every single level of government to present them with our analysis [of Operation Gatekeeper]-which seems to inspire them to build up the border. We've traveled to Washington D.C. and met with congressmen.

“There's still this idea,” he continued, “that migrants are criminals and it's still the Wild West. Policy makers try as hard as they can to twist things around-to perpetuate the myth of illegal aliens as uneducated, criminal-minded people going into our schools, spreading foreign diseases. It's racism.”

Ramirez acknowledged the counter argument that without border enforcement, Mexican citizens would stream into the U.S. if only to escape the poverty endemic to their own country. Mexican President Vicente Fox, in fact, has voiced support of U.S. border policy, and, Ramirez pointed out, the border between Mexico and Guatemala is far more violent than its northern counterpart. “I've spent a lot of time in migrant communities,” he said, “and asked them why they come [to the U.S.]. People don't want to leave their homes, but they are forced to.

“The solution,” he said, “is to provide those countries with the ability to provide for their citizens a dignified way of life. We need to stop thinking of globalization in terms of economics.”

And, he added, “it won't be the government that changes this problem; it will be civil society that changes it.”


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