The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2003, Volume 49, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.

By Joseph Nevins. New York: Routledge, 2002. appendix. foreword. index. notes. ix + 286 pp. $17.95 paper.

Reviewed by Natalia Molina, Assistant Professor, Ethnic Studies Department, University of California, San Diego.

This monograph provides a much needed analysis of U.S.-Mexico immigration policy focusing on Operation Gatekeeper, an enhanced border enforcement program instituted in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. Joseph Nevins places the Operation Gatekeeper program within its political and cultural context, linking it to contemporaneous events, including the controversy surrounding California’s Proposition 187 that denied education and healthcare programs to immigrants. He also provides a thorough historical understanding of various policies around the creation of the Mexican border, the formation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the development of Operation Wetback and the Bracero Program. Nevins carefully breaks down the passage of legislation, how policies shaped public opinion, how local politics influenced the national agenda, and the connections between all of these processes. In short, Nevins deftly connects the dots for immigration policy spanning the twentieth century. By examining these programs in continuum with Operation Gatekeeper, Nevins traces the long-standing common ideological underpinnings running through them all.

Nevins does much more than provide a simple accounting of immigration policies. He examines the cultural constructions on which the aforementioned programs were premised, such as the “illegal immigrant,” to demonstrate how power relations and racial otherness were central to these programs. For example, the author spends a great deal of time examining the historical development of the border and its effects in positioning Mexicans as foreign and other. In addition, he examines the “sister-cities” of San Diego and Tijuana to demonstrate how although the two municipalities are interconnected economically, environmentally, and culturally as a region, most on the U.S. side still consider themselves as being worlds apart from their Mexican neighbors. As such, one sees how social boundaries developed in tandem with geo-political boundaries.

Nevins utilizes comparative immigration examples, such as the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, the exodus of Haitian refugees in 1993, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the oversees smuggling of Chinese immigrants to demonstrate how such events can provoke moral panics and even criminalize immigrants. In doing so, he raises important questions: Are all immigrant groups considered an equal threat? Does anxiety over one immigrant group translate into tighter restrictions for all groups? Such questions take on increased importance for post-September 11th. Airport inspection areas now have eclipsed border stations in importance for screening-out new immigrants.

Nevins successfully explains the sociopolitical developments of the border and Operation Gatekeeper. Because his sources mainly derive from government reports, hearings, newspaper articles, and interviews with government employees, Operation Gatekeeper is much more of an institutional story. The voices and reactions of average citizens to such polices are filtered through journalists, politicians and opinion polls. Because Nevins is concerned with the “sociocutural construction of the undesirable immigrant” (94) it would have been helpful to hear how Mexican citizens reacted to and struggled against constructions of themselves as non-normative and even dangerous. The work does not suffer from the lack of such a position, but one would benefit from reading this book in tandem with other works that look at government programs from the perspective of those it affects, such as Ruben Martinez’s Crossing Over.

Operation Gatekeeper is well-researched, well-written and well-conceived. Anyone interested in the crafting of government policy, the construction of race and ethnicity, and the creation of geo-political entities would benefit from this important work.

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