The following is an in-depth analysis into Silvestre Reyes’s Operation Hold the Line that led to today’s official immigration strategy of “prevention through deterrence”. It is a strategy that failed then and continues to fail to address the problem of irregular migration. Not only did it fail to deter undocumented migration into the United States, but Reyes’ operation was “successful” in one thing only – keeping El Paso’s gardeners, maids and nannies from going to work while doing nothing for keeping undocumented migrants from crossing the border.

Because immigration is a complex socio-economic and geopolitical problem that has many factors affecting it, understanding Operation Hold the Line, what it accomplished, its unintended consequences and how it remains the cornerstone of America’s failed strategy for controlling undocumented migration requires many complex explanations to argue its results. As such, by necessity, this article is much longer than normal.

Readers interested in a summary of the operation, its results and its consequences can go directly to the section – Summary – to understand the operation, its impact on El Paso and how it is the cornerstone of today’s failed immigration strategy.

The Descendent of Mexican Migrants Launches America’s Failed Immigration Policy

The descendent of Mexican immigrants, who was born in Canutillo [37], arrived in El Paso in July 1993 to launch Operation Hold the Line. It was a dramatic change in America’s immigration policy. Although Operation Hold the Line was ostensibly designed to secure America’s border, what it did was target Juárez’ nannies and gardeners, put future undocumented immigrants at the mercy of the coyotes and the desert, planted one of the first parts of the wall on the U.S.-México border, and did little to nothing to stop the drugs from spilling into American streets. This is the story that launched a political career, proved that migrants, even undocumented ones, were not the cause of the problems for El Paso and gave Donald J. Trump the wall that dominated the Trump presidency. This is the story of Operation Hold the Line.

Silvestre Reyes, the first Hispanic Border Patrol chief [61] arrived in El Paso on July 6, 1993. He served two years in the Army and started at the Border Patrol in 1969. In January 1983, Reyes was appointed Deputy Regional Chief in Dallas, then Assistant Regional Commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, also in Dallas and was made Chief Agent for the McAllen Sector in April 1984. In 1993, he was assigned to be the Chief Agent for the Border Patrol, El Paso Sector. [2] On September 19, 1993, Reyes launched Operation Hold the Line. [2] The original name for the operation was Operation Blockade. [3] Because of the negative connotations associated with the word “blockade,” the operation was renamed Operation Hold the Line. [84]

Operation Hold the Line was actually two operations, the first one was launched on September 19, 1993 as Operation Blockade. It ended on October 2, 1993, when the overtime approved for Reyes’ operation ran out. Reyes then reopened the operation as Operation Hold the Line by shifting agents from the other parts of the El Paso sector to the border to keep his border blockade in place. [84]

Hold the Line “placed hundreds of agents along a 20-mile sections of the Rio Grande to deter” undocumented immigrants from crossing “into El Paso daily to work, shop, or make a brief stop on their way” into the interior of the country. Although Reyes has publicly taken credit for conceiving the border blockade and has generally been credited with it, the idea for blockading migrants at the border was already a Border Patrol strategy and Reyes, himself, had previously used it before arriving in El Paso. Reyes had already blockaded undocumented immigrants previously in Harlingen before arriving in El Paso [2] Furthermore, Operation Hold the Line was first used in South Texas under the Reagan Administration. [71] Like today, in the 1990’s there was much controversy over undocumented immigrants coming to the United States as well as refugees being allowed in. To deal with the “mass-migration crisis” the United States government planned to keep migrants out by blocking them at the source. In 1993, concerns over Haitian and possibly a Cuban crisis put in motion plans to blockade both countries. One such plan was Operation Distant Shore. The plan was to address a “mass immigration emergency in southern Florida.” The Florida plan was the model for Operation Hold the Line. [1]

Both the Reagan Administration and the Florida strategy of blockading migrants at the source used the moniker: “Hold the Line”.

Some political observers have argued that the blockade was designed “to protect (Bill) Clinton from political backlash over the outcry for stricter immigration controls.” In addition to the backlash on the Clinton Administration extending George Bush’s “policy of turning back Haitian refugees at sea,” [5] the Clinton administration was reluctantly being forced to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that the Bush Administration had negotiated. Additionally, there was some debate about whether Silvestre Reyes used Operation Hold the Line to deflect away from the Border Patrol’s rising claims of abuse upon immigrants. [5]

By November 1993, Operation Hold the Line had 400 permanent immigration officials guarding a 20-mile stretch of the U.S.-México border along El Paso. The 400 agents were divided into three shifts of 130 agents each. [3]

Although it shocked many when agents suddenly lined the border, support for the operation seemed “high” according to news media reports of the time. [3] It was said that that 95% of El Pasoans were behind the operation. However, the 95% support figure was derived from “informal radio and newspaper surveys.” [5]

The residents of Juárez were not happy about the border blockade. It affected more than the economy of the poor in the city. Juárez resident Alberto Gonzalez told The Boston Globe that “it’s as if suddenly Mexicans are the devil to be blamed for everything.” Gonzalez added rhetorically, “it’s the fault” of undocumented immigrants for things like “unemployment in El Paso,” or “that there is crime in El Paso,” and that undocumented immigrants “are using up money for schools and welfare.” He concluded, “Mexicans have been made the scapegoats to justify Hold-the-Line”. [33]

Some El Pasoans publicly opposed Reye’s border blockade. El Paso resident Elizabeth Lozano said that Hold the Line was not about protecting America but that it was about targeting the people “on their way to work as maids, gardeners, nannies, garment workers, farmhands – jobs no one else wants.” [33] Instead of stopping undocumented immigrants looking to settle in America, Operation Hold the Line was simply stopping the ones that worked in El Paso helping families like Lozano who needed help with the house and her children as she worked in her architectural work.

El Pasoans Supported The Reyes Blockade

There is no question that, at least publicly, the border blockade had major public support by many El Pasoans, especially the Latinos. One of the major supporters of the operation was then-mayor Larry Francis, whose relationship with El Paso Hispanics was difficult. In addition to Francis, the “leading chambers of commerce” also supported Reyes’ blockade. [5]

Nationally, a CNN poll showed that 73% of Americans supported limits on immigrants. [5] Although it may seem that racism played a part in the overwhelming support for the border blockage, in the case of El Paso it was not racism but rather an issue of social-economic discrimination as El Paso is and was overwhelmingly Hispanic. For El Paso, and much of the southwest, the issue of undocumented immigrants rallies around national origin, as in Americans versus Mexicans and not around ethnicity, i.e., Mexican-American vs. Anglos. But there is no question that the border blockades led to the increased vocalization of racism against Mexicans in America and may have contributed to the 2019 Walmart massacre.

El Paso Times columnist Joe Olvera argued in a 1994 editorial that El Paso’s Latinos had simply forgotten that many of them had family that crossed the border at some point. Olvera wrote, “may my compadres and my fellow Chicanos … er … Mexican-Americans be a little more compassionate in 1994, especially when it comes to their own people.” Olvera added, “may they remember and recall that perhaps their own family members – fathers, mothers, grandfathers or grandmothers – came to this nation without documents and only later legalized their status.” [11] It is likely that El Pasoans were solidly behind Operation Hold the Line based on social-economic issues and misinformation about taxes, or simply because it was easier to use immigrants as the excuse for other issues faced by them.

A couple of days later, El Pasoan Luis H. De La Cruz penned a letter to the El Paso Times in which he wrote, “unfortunately, the old problems of famine, poverty, graffiti, racism, including the 90 percent of so-called Hispanics who approve the iron-curtain (proposed border fence), are still with us and show no signs of decline.” [12] Reyes was also proposing a fence at border near Sunland Park.

Other public supporters of the blockade were the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. [28] The only issue concerning the two chambers was how to support the blockade without antagonizing Mexican shoppers coming to spend Mexican money in El Paso.

The two Democrats running in the March 1994 16th Congressional District, Ronald Coleman and Michael Crowley both supported the Reyes border blockade. The three Republicans vying for the spot on their ticket, Dick Bowen, Rick Ledesma and C.R. “Bobby” Ortiz also supported the blockade. [17]

However, the Republicans were the most vocal supporters of Silvestre Reyes, who later became the congressman for El Paso’s 16th Congressional District, as a Democrat. Then-Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) said on March 15, 1995, that Reyes is “a little bit of an embarrassment” to both the Clinton Administration and the immigration services agency. [34] Reyes had forced the immigration services agency and the Clinton Administration to change its strategies about undocumented migration by making it a public spectacle.

However, there is no question that El Paso’s Latinos favored Silvestre Reyes’ border blockade.

Was Operation Hold the Line “Gimmicky”?

Silvestre Reyes’ border blockade was publicly about dealing with undocumented immigrants at the point of entry instead of interdicting them once they had entered the country. By lining border guards along the U.S.-México border it was believed that undocumented migrants would be deterred from entering the country simply because it was too difficult to do so.

The underlining problem with the “prevention through deterrence” strategy is that it fundamentally ignores the drive of irregular migration – jobs – and does not address the fact that the U.S.-México border is simply too big to blockade with walls, technology and, obviously manpower. The border blockade in 1993 proved this, but instead of dealing with the underlining issues, the U.S government doubled down and continues to use “prevention and deterrence” as its border strategy today.

Operation Hold the Line made it “more difficult, but not impossible” for the undocumented migrants that settled in America. The ones that were affected by Reyes’ blockade were the workers who went to work and returned home to México at the end of day. The ones that took the “jobs no one else wants.” [33] Operation Hold the Line “mainly deterred ‘commuter migrants,’ meaning workers in the adjacent border city of Ciudad Juárez who walked to their jobs in El Paso, Texas.” [85]

The border agents tasked with guarding the border understood the problem – jobs. “Most Mexican citizens have deep ties to family and community and would prefer to stay home, but Mexico’s economic turmoil prompts them to seek jobs north of the border,” said an agent. [36]

As the Chief Agent at the McAllen sector, Reyes had implemented similar land blockades in 1989 and 1989 to stop refugees from Central America. [2] Rogelio Nuñez, executive director of Proyecto Libertad, a refugee legal services agency, said that he “wasn’t impressed” with Reyes’ blockades in Harlingen. Nuñez said that the land blockades were a “smokescreen” that looked “good” but were “gimmicky” that took focus away from problems at the Border Patrol. [2]

Although publicly Reye’s operation seemed to have the support of the locals and the nation, there were criticisms about it that did not get much public attention.

By the third month of the operation, criticism about the border blockade began to permeate across El Paso. The Border Patrol Agents in El Paso started to be blamed for the blockade. On January 28, 1994, Silvestre Reyes told attendees of the three-day National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in downtown El Paso that individuals “shouldn’t blame agents” for Operation Hold the Line. Also speaking to the audience members that day was Al Giugni, district director for Immigration and Naturalization Service. Giugni was asked by a member of the audience why was it that Canadians had easier access to travel to the country then Mexicans, Giugni responded that Canadians did not need travel documents. [14]

In response to Giugni’s comments, then-city representative Ignacio “Nacho” Padilla asked Giugni if that meant that “we discriminate against (Mexico), a country that leaves one billion dollars a year in (the El Paso) economy?” “Yes,” was Giugni’s response. [14]

Even immigration officials were reluctant about Operation Hold the Line. In early February 1994, Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was scheduled to tour Operation Hold the Line but canceled at the last moment. [15] Officially Meissner canceled because she planned to announce new border operations the following day. Federal officials were not solidly behind Reye’s operation and the Clinton Administration was reluctant to tackle it.

The Clinton Administration failed to support it with additional manpower for years. Since 1994, Reyes had been asking for more agents to bolster his ranks to keep the manpower on the border. On January 6, 1995, federal officials announced that Reyes would get 65 additional agents and not the 200 that Reyes said he needed. [29] Meissner, the commissioner, told the El Paso Times that an additional 40 agents would be “freed from support work and deployed in the field.” [16] Border Patrol agents were complaining about the “crushing boredom as they stare for hours at largely empty frontier.” Then-U.S. Representative Ron Coleman (D) told the El Paso Times that he was “not pleased” and that it “sends the wrong message,” adding that “it is hardly a show of support” for the blockade. [29]

Although officially the operation was a success, the manpower to sustain it, much less increase it across the border was not forthcoming. The question was why since the operation was being touted as the solution to a long-standing problem.

Then-Senator Phil Gramm (R) and New Mexico then-Senator Pete Domenici “were angered” in 1994 when Immigration and Naturalization Service officials allocated 150 or more agents to California instead of filling Silvestre Reyes’ request for additional manpower to bolster his blockade in El Paso. [32]

Federal officials were intent on trying to change the strategy towards using its manpower to interdict undocumented migrants inside of the country instead of at the border. Meissner was intending to frame the announcement of Operation Gatekeeper in California as an evolution of Hold the Line but with manpower concentrated away from the border. She and other officials were receiving pushback by others to model Operation Gatekeeper as Operation Hold the Line which is why Meissner canceled her tour of El Paso’s operation.

Operation Gatekeeper, which interdicted undocumented immigrants within the country instead of stopping them at the border like Operation Hold the Line, had pitted Reyes against some INS officials and some members of Congress. [32] Eventually, Gatekeeper became Hold the Line number two. But it remained clear that manpower was insufficient and Reyes understood this. He proposed a fence at Sunland Park.

The Anapra Wall

During the Trump Administration there was much national acrimony about Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-México border to stop undocumented immigrants from coming to the country. In early December 1993, Silvestre Reyes submitted a $100,000+ plan “calling for a 10-foot-high solid steel fence, more surveillance cameras and lighting” to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Reyes was asking for a wall to be built – a 1.3-mile barrier in the Sunland Park-Anapra area. [7]

The fence created considerable controversy in El Paso. Why the proposed fence was controversial and not the human-lined blockade is not known, but for some reason, most El Pasoans were against a wall. Then-mayor Larry Francis told the El Paso Times in November 1993 that El Paso doesn’t “need another Berlin Wall” because it “sends a bad message.” [7]

The El Paso Times also seems to have been taken aback by the mention of a wall along the U.S.-México border, although a fence already existed in El Paso at the time. In an editorial on November 13, 1993, the Times editorial board wrote that Reyes needs “to understand that there is something patently offensive about erecting walls between nations,” apparently oblivious to the symbolism Border Patrol agents lining the border and El Pasoans’ “widespread support” for the hold-the-line operation symbolized. [8]

That Francis supported Reyes’ man-powered barriers and not a fence and that the El Paso Times editorial page opposed a fence suggests the Reyes blockade was more a “gimmick” and not an honest attempt to control the flows of undocumented immigrants.

However, according to an El Paso Times poll, 55% of those polled supported the wall while 35% opposed it. Environmentalists were particularly upset over the steel wall. [30] El Paso officials and the local newspaper were against the proposal wall, but El Pasoans seemed to favor it.

As expected, Mexican residents were against the wall. Juárez community activists Cesár de la Cruz told the El Paso Times in early 1996 that “in speeches they (the United States) call us neighbors and friends, but in reality they call us thieves and scavengers.” [45]

Robert Saenz, assistant Border Patrol chief, responded to Cruz’ comments by saying that “we are of course sensitive to the plight of many immigrants but we have to enforce our laws.” Saenz added, “I don’t believe Mr. De [sic] la Cruz has the audacity to attack the U.S. for enforcing its laws.” [45]

Juárez mayor Ramon Galindo told the paper that “no fence or wall is going to stop” migrants from crossing the border “as long as there is demand for labor” in the U.S. [44] His point was made when it became apparent that the Reyes blockade was not stopping undocumented migrants but simply shifting them to the desert. The fences and walls would do the same.

Reyes first proposed the Sunland Park wall in 1994. Construction began in 1996. By November 1996, the one-and-a-half-mile wall remained unfinished. [49] The federal shutdown in December 1995 had stalled the controversial wall that had been planned since 1993. “Construction of the 1.3-mile fence, which stirred emotions and passionate debate in Sunland Park last spring has not begun two months after the planned October completion dates,” said the Albuquerque Journal. But an El Paso 7-foot wall along Paisano Drive was being constructed. [43]

In addition to the Reyes blockade shifting crossing points to more dangerous locations, there was another consequence that would soon become apparent, the rise of drug trafficking through the southern border. [44] We explore that consequences further down.

Reyes, who proposed the Anapra fence seems to have changed his mind over the strategy of “prevention through deterrence” that his blockade gave rise to, including the use of walls on the border. In 2009, then-Congressman Silvestre Reyes (TX-D) penned an editorial in which he argued that although he “supported the strategic placement of fencing along targeted areas of the border, he felt “strongly that efforts under the previous administration (George W. Bush) to erect almost 700 miles of fencing on our southern border were wasteful, irresponsible and unnecessary.” Reyes added that that was the reason he voted against the Secure Fence Act. [76]

Reyes continued that “hundreds of miles of fencing will do little to curb the flow of undocumented immigrants or to protect our citizens from threats such as the ongoing drug-related violence in Mexico.” [76] Reyes was now advocating for comprehensive immigration reform under the Obama Administration. Also, readers should note that the face of immigration had started to shift. Mexicans in greater numbers were returning to México and less were crossing the border for work.

The Trump Wall

When the Trump Administration used El Paso as a backdrop for building a wall along the U.S.-México border to make America safer, El Paso officials were quick to tell them that they were wrong about El Paso. Trump officials were arguing that the El Paso wall made El Paso one of the safest cities in the nation.

Former police chief Russ Leach said in 1997 that it was not law enforcement that made the city safe, it was the “residents of El Paso [who] are actually behind the city’s safety.” In response to the Trump administration’s comments, Beto O’Rourke who is currently running for governor of Texas said on January 16, 2018 that the city’s safety “has never been” because of “federal policy”. O’Rourke added that “El Pasoans specifically who have made” the city safe. [83]

State Representative Lina Ortega said in 2018 that El Paso has “always been a safe city” and that the “wall makes no difference.” [83] In the 1990’s it was the Mexicans who were the cause of crime in El Paso and the high taxes that El Pasoans pay. For some, in El Paso, this remains the narrative today. But Reyes’ operation proved that the Mexican scapegoat for what’s wrong with El Paso was wrong.

The Effect on El Paso

Operation Hold the Line proved that Mexican migrants were not a burden to El Paso taxpayers and that crime was not caused by immigrants. Economically it remains unsettled whether El Paso’s economy suffered as the result of the Reyes blockade. There was another geopolitical issue that also had an affect on El Paso’s economy at the time and it dynamically changed the city’s economy. In 1994, NAFTA went into effect. It fundamentally changed México’s economy and influenced El Paso. Another factor was that the Mexican government had started implementing a tax on goods brought back to México. And the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks also had an impact on El Paso’s economy, like it did across the nation.

For downtown El Paso, the border blockade made downtown’s economy worse. Mexican customers, which until then supported El Paso’s downtown, shifted their business to Laredo and McAllen because of the border crossing delays caused by Reyes’ blockade operation. [4] [5] In the first six-months of the operation in 1994, indications were that El Paso’s economy would adjust to the blockade. “Ninety-nine percent of the feedback we get here is positive,” Border Patrol spokesperson Doug Mossier told the El Paso Times. Sales figures supported the idea that Operation Hold the Line had little impact on El Paso’s economy, especially in downtown El Paso. Sales tax reports showed “increased sales since the blockade began” proclaimed the newspaper. [20]

But by mid-1994 the economic reality began to sink in. In May 1994, actual sales figures began to become public. When the sales figures arrived, it was discovered that downtown El Paso lost $5 million during the last three months of 1993 that the Reyes’ blockade was in place. Sales in other parts of the city increased as downtown El Paso suffered. [26]

A year after Reyes implemented the blockade, El Paso downtown had lost almost 40% of retail sales, although the malls in the rest of the city saw an increase of about 48%. [28]

Wages, Taxes and Crime

There are two underlining issues that encouraged support for the blockade in El Paso. It is high taxes, diminished wages and crime. Operation Hold the Line allows use to explore these issues on their effect on El Paso.


A reduction in crime was one of the benefits of the blockade proponents argued, including Reyes. However, some crime like pickpocketing and shoplifting were “reduced drastically,” according to the police department, other crimes like burglaries and homicides did not see any changes. [5] Tying pickpocketing and shoplifting to undocumented immigrants is impossible as the blockage had also reduced shoppers in the shopping areas. Additionally, the drop in automobile thefts cannot be tied to undocumented immigrants as other factors also affected car thefts.

By mid-1994, the short-term drop-in car theft attributed to Operation Hold the Line had returned to the normal levels prior to the operation. [19] Almost four years after Operation Hold the Line had been launched by Reyes, the problem of car thefts remained high enough that the El Paso Police Department implemented H.E.A.T (Help End Auto Theft), a program that allowed the police to pull over any vehicle after hours that displayed the H.E.A.T decal. El Pasoans were signing up to allow police officers to pull them over without probable cause or a traffic violation because they had a sticker on their car. [51] Auto thefts in El Paso dropped from 5,524 in 1993, when Reyes launched his blockade by about 1,000 cars a year but jumped back up to 4,360 cars stolen by 1995. By May of 1997, 1,889 cars had been stolen in El Paso. [51]

Clearly the border blockade was not having an impact on car thefts in the city.

Other crimes in El Paso showed similar results. The crime rate in El Paso increased across the city in 1995 and 1996, despite Reyes’ border blockade. The crime rate in 1987 was 42,078 serious crimes committed each year. By 1996, the annual remained at 45,134 even though part of the “success” of the border blockade was that crime numbers were down. [52]

Although border blockades have remained in El Paso since 1993, correlating the city’s crime rate to undocumented immigrants is not possible. Former police chief Russ Leach said as much in 1997. Russ said that it was not law enforcement that made the city safe, it was the “residents of El Paso [who] are actually behind the city’s safety.” [83] When Russ said this, Operation Hold the Line was being heralded by the news media, El Paso residents and Reyes that it had brought crime down. The police chief clearly disagreed and subsequent evidence proved this.


Another often-used argument against undocumented immigrants is the perceived cost of them on El Paso’s taxpayers. Many have argued that undocumented mothers misuse the taxpayer-funded hospital (UMC) by giving birth to their children there at no to little cost to the immigrant. Also giving birth in an American hospital provided the newborn with automatic citizenship.

The impact on the birthrate at Thomason Hospital, now the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC), was not affected by the operation in its first two-months it was put in place. [6] Instead of a drop in the birthrate at Thomason (UMC) as predicted, the birthrate increased at the local taxpayer-funded hospital. [19] Later studies supported that undocumented migrants were not taking advantage of El Paso taxpayers by going to the local tax-funded hospital, although it continues to be argued to this day.


Low wages in El Paso is another often-argued point about undocumented immigrants in El Paso in that they diminish the wages in the city by taking jobs at lower wages competing unfairly with the legal El Paso workforce. Accepting the “success” argument about the Reyes border blockade as true, one would assume that the void left by the migrants stranded on the Mexican side of the border would lead to more job openings in El Paso.

A University of Texas at Austin research paper analyzing the effects of the border blockade in 1994 on jobs, reviewed job placement reports and the unemployment levels after the blockade was launched. The researchers found that the unemployment rates for El Paso between 1989 through 1993 remained “identical” for pre and post the border blockade. The findings of the researchers indicated “that the proportion of Juárez residents working illegally in El Paso before the blockade was probably relatively small and that most of them worked in domestic service, as street vendors, or for construction contractors at rates of pay not attractive to most legal” workers. [84]

More importantly, the researchers wrote in their report that “while the Operation (Hold the Line) has reduced illegal crossings, it has not eliminated them.” [84] The finding that the border blockade had a negligible effect on the undocumented migration so soon after the operation was started supports the findings from more available data years later. This suggests that almost from the launch of the Reyes border blockade, the data was showing that Mexicans were having little, if any impact on the wages in El Paso. More importantly, the report was finding that Operation Hold the Line was not the deterrent to undocumented migration that supporters argued that it was.

The “success” of Operation Hold the Line was not ending unregulated migration on the southern border. Its success was in proving that blaming El Paso’s problems on Juárez migrants was unsupported by the facts. But Operation Hold the Line had serious unintended consequences that reverberate across the nation today and in El Paso.

The Unintended Consequences of Operation Hold The Line

There are several unintended consequences of Silvestre Reyes’ operation that continue to plague the national immigration debate today. They range from racism to rising violence and even death. As readers will observe, Operation Hold the Line did not resolve border security as intended – it instead exacerbated it and along the way created various unintended consequences. They are racism against Mexicans, both American citizens and those from México. The border blockade not only encouraged rising racism against Mexicans in America it also led to the creation of racist vigilante groups and racist laws targeting Hispanic migrants. And it made mom-and-pop smuggling operations into sophisticated violent gang-dominated human-trafficking operations. The rise of the Mexican drug cartels, especially in the case of Operation Hold the Line, the Juárez cartel was another consequence. It also led to death.

As readers will note further down, Operation Hold the Line and the other border blockades that followed did not address the problem of irregular migration. It simply shifted migrants to other parts of the border. Officially, the blockades were “successful” but in reality they failed to achieve their goal of controlling the border. Furthermore, it was very clear from the beginning that blockading the southern border was logistically impossible, even with walls and technology. What Silvestre Reyes launched with Operation Hold the Line was the Juárez Cartel.

Drug Cartels Benefited From The Border Blockades

As Operation Hold the Line heightened anti-immigration in America. Border security stopped being about keeping drugs off America’s streets to keeping low-wage Mexicans out of America. As the drug trade was booming and drug lords like Chapo Guzman were becoming more powerful, America’s focus was on keeping the nannies and gardeners out of El Paso. The result was that the Juárez Cartel was becoming one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world by sending large quantities of narcotics across the border into America.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes founded the Juárez Cartel in 1993, just as Reyes was blockading the border. Amado Carrillo Fuentes is known as the Lord of the Skies for his use of aircraft to smuggle drugs into the United States. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, El Viceroy, Amado’s brother, took control of the Juárez Cartel in mid-1997 after Amado died from botched plastic surgery. Carrillo Fuentes was charged by the U.S. government on forty-six counts of drug trafficking worth “billions of dollars”. Carrillo Fuentes was arrested in 2014 by Mexican officials and was sentenced to 28 years in a Mexican prison. [44]

There is no question that the Juárez Cartel was one of the largest Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) in the world. It also directly led to the rise of Chapo Guzman in the drug world. The drug war violence that terrified Juárez residents around 2008 is the result of violence for control of the drug plaza that the Juárez Cartel controlled.

Ana (author agreed not to use her last name) said that she attended Loretto High School in the mid-1990’s. Although her parents were oblivious to the rising Juárez Cartel, she realized on an outing with her school friends when they stopped at a fellow-student’s house in Juárez that was surrounded by armed men “holding machine guns” that something was amiss. She did not pay much attention to it then. According to Ana, it did not register with her until much later that she was attending school with the children of drug dealers. “I asked my parents if they had realized that they had sent her to school with drug dealers,” she said. Her parents were “horrified” to learn about her experiences. [44] What the Reyes’ border blockade was doing was keeping the poor Mexican migrants out, but it had no effect on the growing drug problem in America. That wealthy Mexicans, who were connected to the drug trade, were sending their children to El Paso private schools also did not seem to bother the many El Pasoans who applauded the border blockade for keeping poor undocumented Mexicans out.

In 1994, 6,000 pounds of marihuana, 53 pounds of cocaine and about 6 pounds of heroin were seized in the El Paso area. By 1996, the weight of the drug seizures had increased to 15,000 pounds of marihuana, 731 pounds of cocaine and almost 39 pounds of heroin. [49] The drug trade through El Paso exploded while Operation Hold the Line was keeping the nannies and gardeners out of El Paso homes.

Drug cartels were bypassing Operation Hold the Line to get their drugs across the border. [57] The national rhetoric of Operation Hold the Line focused on immigration and ignored illegal narcotics trafficking along the border. It did so because it was clear that drugs did not cross through a porous border but through legal points of entry. The blockade also ignored the reality that almost half of undocumented do not cross the border through the river or the desert but through legal points of entry. But a show of force allowed Americans to believe that something was being done on their behalf.

The drug gangs gave rise to human trafficking gangs decades later. We will explore the rise of the human trafficking gangs later, but first it is important to understand how Operation Hold the Line encouraged the rising anti-Mexican racism in America.

Racist Laws Are Enacted

California’s Proposition 187 was the first racist immigration law enacted because of Operation Hold the Line. The border blockades were making the argument that America’s problems were the immigrants, even though the evidence did not support this. Anti-immigrants were now empowered to make laws further demonizing poor migrants. Arizona followed with SB 1070.

Proposition 187

“Save Our State” [21] or Proposition 187 was adopted on a two-to-one vote by California voters in 1994. Following so close to Reyes’ border blockade suggests that it was influenced by Operation Hold the Line. As a matter of fact, on April 21, 1994, then-California Republican governor Pete Wilson toured El Paso’s Hold the Line. Wilson called the blockade a “historic effort that has produced a new tranquility on both sides of the international boundary.” Wilson had made immigration the “center piece of his reelection campaign.” [25]

“Californians, confronted with a more diverse states and battered by the state’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, came to believe the problem was immigrants in the country illegally and their children.” [22]

Proposition 187 was the vanguard of draconian legislation, often led by citizens, across America that in many ways led to Donald J. Trump. [21] But it also gave rise to activist Latinos focused on national immigration issues. [22] “On November 2, 1994, over 10,000 teenagers across California walked out to protest Proposition 187.” [22] Unlike in El Paso, Latinos rallied behind the poor Hispanic migrants that the law was targeting. Proposition 187 empowered Latinos in California to rally against racist legislation targeting Hispanics.

But not in El Paso. In 1995, 85% of El Pasoans supported the Reyes blockade and thus it should not surprise readers that 60% of El Pasoans supported a law like Proposition 187 for El Paso, according to an El Paso Times poll of registered voters. As for a wall, 55% supported one as well. [31]

Proposition 187 is now considered “one of the most anti-immigrant ballot initiatives” in California’s history. In addition to keeping undocumented from accessing social benefits, including public schools, the measure also encouraged citizens to report suspected undocumented immigrants to federal officials. [23]

A soon as it was adopted, the measure was challenged successfully in court, keeping its provisions from being applied to California. The law was effectively killed in 1999 when California Governor Gray Davis withdrew California’s appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. [24]

Most interesting for political pundits is that Proposition 187 took California away from a Republican strong-hold that gave the Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and turned the state into a “progressive powerhouse” where undocumented immigrants have access to “everything from free healthcare to driver’s licenses.” [22] But anti-immigration laws were just getting started.

Senate Bill 1070

The border blockaded in El Paso and in San Diego funneled undocumented migrants to Arizona’s deserts. Instead of ending unregulated migration, the border blockades simply forced them to the deserts. Rising undocumented populations and death tolls along the Arizona border with México raised tensions in Arizona. This led to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law. We will look further into the shifting of migration patterns below, but before we need to look at another anti-immigration law encouraged by Reyes’ border blockade, this time in Arizona.

The Arizona law made it a crime to be in Arizona as an undocumented migrant. The immigration tensions that led to SB 1070 was argued by many to be Operation Hold the Line and the border blockades that it spawned. [77] It empowered Arizona’s law enforcement to stop, question and determine whether anyone they detained was in the country legally. If Arizona law enforcement determined that someone was undocumented, they would arrest them under SB 1070. [77] It took the power of the federal government to regulate migration and put it on the state’s law enforcement to deal with the immigration issue.

The largest problem with the law, besides that it took the federal government’s power away, was that it would lead to racial profiling as Arizona law enforcement would likely stop and question Latinos to determine their legal status. SB 1070 was described by The Arizona Republic as either “a civil rights abomination or the symbol of a state stepping up to a difficult job that the U.S. government refuses to do.” The law was opposed by the Obama Administration. [77]

The law led to economic boycotts of Arizona, but it also had the support of other states. It also led to seven lawsuits in U.S. district courts, including the Obama Administration challenging its constitutionality. [77] The Arizona law also gave rise to forceful Latino activists pushing back on the racism the law was generating across the nation. Mary Rose Wilcox, the Democratic Maricopa County supervisor told The Arizona Republic in 2010 as the law was set to take affect that she had “never felt the racism” that the law had generated in Arizona. [77] Then Rep. Michele Reagan (R), who voted for the law, also told The Arizona Republic that “nobody envisioned the boycotts…nobody anticipated the emotion, the prayer vigils,” that law created. [77] Even immigration officials were non-committal on the law.

Just days before the law was set to take effect, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that absorbed the Border Patrol after Homeland Security was created after the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, remained non-committal on whether they would cooperate with Arizona’s law enforcement in applying the new law. Without the cooperation of ICE, the new law would not work. [78]

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court (Arizona v. United States) ruled that federal law pre-empted parts of the law that made it a crime to be in the State of Arizona undocumented and the other provisions that made it a state crime to seek employment without a work permit and allowing police to arrest someone without a warrant.

However, the Supreme Court also ruled that state police may stop, detain and/or arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

SB 1070 went into effect on July 29, 2010. [79]

According to a WestGroup Research 2010 poll. 61% of registered voters in Arizona supported SB 1070. However, 62% of the respondents agreed that undocumented immigrants who were employed and did not have criminal records should be allowed to stay in the country. [79] This suggested that Arizona voters that were polled supported a mixed immigration policy, both increasing pressure on the undocumented immigrants and allowing some, a form of pathway towards citizenship.

The national immigration debate continues to be dominated by racism today. The argument over whether the states have authority over immigration policy also remains part of the debate. English-only laws, voting restrictions and whether asylum seekers are breaking the law is underlined with racist undertones today.

This, of course, has led to vigilantism on the streets especially against migrants. This was only a short step from vigilantes targeting immigrants to vigilantes believing they had the right to storm the capital building on January 6, 2021 to stop an election they deemed to be wrong.

The Rise of Racist Vigilante Groups

Another unintended consequence of Reyes’ border blockade was the rise of civilian border militias intent on stopping migrants trying to enter the United States. The Civil Homeland Defense Corps out of Tombstone Arizona was organized “to deter, by legal means (undocumented) immigrants, drug traffickers and terrorists from entering the United States by a physical presence along the immediate U.S.-Mexico border,” according to its organizer, Chris Simcox. [66] The Civil Defense Corps is better known as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. [68]

The Minuteman, which ended operations in 2010 after several members, including Simcox were jailed, were styled as “citizen border patrols”. They were fashioned after Operation Hold the Line, but instead of federally backed, the border blockade was patrolled by vigilantes. The vigilantes were endorsed by then-Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and Rick Perry (Texas).

On June 8, 2016, Simcox was convicted on two counts of child molestation and one count of furnishing pornography to a minor. Among those who testified against Simcox in trial were his three daughters. He had been arrested in 2013. [67] Simcox was a private school kindergarten teacher prior to organizing his anti-immigrant vigilante group. [68]

Simcox is serving a 19-year prison sentence for child molestation. [69]

Readers should note the similarities between the investigations into the storming of the Capitol Building in 2021 and the vigilante groups targeting immigrants. However, there was another unintended consequence of Operation Hold the Line and its subsequent border blockade operations, the rise of human trafficking.

Migrant Deaths

To understand the other unintended consequence, it is important to understand that notwithstanding that narrative of the “success” of Operation Hold the Line, it is important to understand that border blockades like it and the ones that followed simply shifted migrants away from the chokeholds into the deserts. We will explore the failure further down but for now it is important to understand that the result is that migrants shifted their crossing points to the deserts. Like every barrier and border operation before, undocumented immigrants responded to new enforcement by simply shifting their crossing points away from the barriers or the enforcement areas to other places.

Operation Hold the Line was intended to prove that undocumented immigration could be controlled by simply sealing the border. In the case of the border blockade, it was to be a proof of concept that if you sealed the border undocumented immigration would be solved. It was the genesis of building walls along the border. It was a political spectacle that ignored the fundamental problems of immigration. Because it was a spectacle, it changed the face of immigration. It led to death, many of them.

The Reyes’ blockade forced migrants out of the urban areas and into the desert. It killed thousands of would-be border crossers. From 1999 to 2001, 280 undocumented migrants lost their lives in the desert. Alarmed by the rising deaths, activists setup water stations in Arizona for the migrants to use. The death toll rose to 374 by the ends of fiscal year 2001. This was more than double from the previous year. [59]

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s own numbers proved that the border blockade only resulted in shifting undocumented immigrant crossing points away from the targeted border areas. The numbers reported by the agency for apprehensions before and after the blockade in El Paso and the border fence in California show that apprehensions in the Tucson sector increased from 29,866 to 40,895 while it decreased in El Paso from 101,167 to 27,254. In the Marfa sector, apprehensions increased slightly to 5,691 from 5,032. The Laredo sector saw a decrease from 31,340 to 27,842 while Del Rio saw an increase from 13,102 to 15,632 and the McAllen sector, as well, saw and increase from 37,613 to 47,332. [19]

Another killer was drowning in the Rio Grande. In addition to the rising number of deaths, 1,300 migrants in distress were rescued in the Tucson area in 2000. [59]

A 1996 University of Houston report and a follow up in 2001 “tied the sharp rise in exposure-related immigrant deaths to Border Patrol strategies spawned by the El Paso sector’s successful Operation Hold the Line.” [59]

Reyes’ border blockade was now killing migrants.

The 1996 report said that “it is the border enforcement that creates the conditions for the deaths” of the migrants. [59] The Binational Migration Institute confirmed that border blockade operations were not only pushing migrants to the desert but was also killing them. The Government Accountability Office (GOA) and other experts agreed that the “crisis” in the rising death rate of migrants was “a direct consequence of U.S. immigration control policies initially instituted in the mid-1990s.” [75]

According to Amnesty International in a report they issued on March 28, 2012, 5,200 migrants died between 1998 and 2008 because of the border blockades initiated by Silvestre Reyes. [80] In 2007 Tucson resident Jody Ipsen founded Los Desconocidos and The Migrant Quilt Project. The project honored the migrants that died in the desert because of the border blockades initiated by Reyes in 1993. Incomplete records suggest that “upwards of 6,000” migrants died in the deserts on the U.S.-México border between 2000 and 2017. By 2016 The Migrant Quilt Project had completed twelve quilts and was working on four more. Each quilt was made from discarded clothing found in the desert with the names of dead migrants added to them. Each quilt represented each year since the medical examiner in Prima County started migrant deaths in 2000. [82]

Reyes himself acknowledged in 2001 that migrants dying in the desert was an “unintended consequence” of his operation. [62] But death was not only problem for the migrants. Another problem loomed for them and America, human traffickers.

Human Trafficking Organizations Are Created

The reason for the rising use of coyotes, or polleros as migrant smugglers were known along the border is a direct consequence of Operation Hold the Line and how it forced migrants away from the urban areas towards the desert. As readers noted above, the death rate among migrants significantly increased as border blockades were kept in El Paso and in San Diego. The forced shift in undocumented migration also created the human traffickers that is now an additional problem for America’s immigration issue.

A 25-year-old smuggler told The Boston Globe that for $25 he took undocumented immigrants “west of El Paso because there are not too many border guards there.” [33] Operation Hold the Line was empowering small time smugglers to grow and forcing migrants to pay to cross the border.

Competing to cross the border in 1995 were the undocumented immigrants and the drug mules. Border agents know that “successful smugglers are resilient professionals seasoned in desert survival, camouflage and nocturnal movement, all essential skills” in the desert “where summertime temperatures can hover at 115 degrees” (Fahrenheit). Agents described the migrants they encountered as “the friendliest bunch” they encountered in the desert near Presidio, adding, “they’re kind of neat.” They “don’t even run when we (border agents) come up on them.” [36] But now it wasn’t only the migrants they were encountering. It was also the drug mules. This put the smugglers in a collision course where drug dealers were competing against the migrants to cross the border. This put the migrants at the mercy of the drug gangs who were only interested in ensuring the drugs got through.

In addition, while Operation Hold the Lines was distracting the border agents from drug interdiction by directing them at nannies and gardeners, drugs were making their way through the border. While the headlines were proclaiming the “success” of stopping the gardeners and maids at the border, the drugs were still making it across the border.

In 1993, when Reyes launched Hold the Line, only 15% of undocumented immigrants used smugglers to cross the border. By 2004, it was 40%. The smuggling fees increased from $250 per person in 1993 to $1,100 in 2004. A 2001 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas into smuggling fees found that Operation Hold the Line caused smuggling fees to jump. In 1965, the average smuggling fee was $900. By 1994, it had fallen to $300 because human trafficking operations were saturated with smugglers offering their services. Just in Juárez it was reported that there were around 500 polleros (smugglers) offering to take migrant across the border in 2006. [74]

Although proponents of the border blockades argued that rising smuggling fees proved the “success” of the blockades, UTEP anthropology professor and immigration expert Josiah Heyman said that “the smugglers are winning,” adding that “they make money and they are succeeding because people would not pay them that money if they did not get people across.” [74]

The End?

After Silvestre Reyes had resigned to run for congress [38], the new chief of the El Paso sector, William T. Veal took over in January 1995. Veal had worked in San Diego for 20 years before coming to El Paso. Following on Reyes’ blockade of El Paso’s border, Veal had launched Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego. [39] But the manpower required to sustain Hold the Line was untenable from the beginning. The two proposed walls for the El Paso sector remained controversial. And Congress was reluctant to fund the manpower required to blockade the U.S.-México border. On December 6, 1995, Congress was debating a proposal to close Border Patrol stations in the interior of the country and reallocate 200 agents to the border. Several agents were opposed to the closure of their New Mexico offices, according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, arguing that once the undocumented migrants got past the border “there’s no one to stop them.” [40]

The agents understood that blockading the border would not deter undocumented migration and Congress knew that no amount of money would seal the border. Evidence was suggesting that the border blockades were coming to an end.

Although no one wanted to say it out loud, Operation Hold the Line seemed to be ending. The El Paso Times, who touted the “success” of Operation Hold the Line and the support from El Pasoans since its inception, published an editorial that said it was coming to an end without saying so. The newspaper was referring to how the incoming chief, William Veal, was appealing “to people in both Mexico and the United States” by showing “a sophisticated, reasoned approach to his mission” of preventing undocumented migration. [41]

What Veal was saying, according to the Times editorial, was that border security “strategy will continue to evolve” to something other than “an inflexible, outdated defense posture.” [41] The Times seemd to be preparing El Pasoans to what was to come by saying what no one dared to publicly utter in 1995, Operation Hold the Line was ending. But bureaucracy does not give way easily.

The truth of the failure of Operation Hold the Line to enforce immigration was starting to leak out. Although the “success” of Operation Hold the Line was predicated on the dropping number of apprehensions in El Paso of undocumented migrants, rising deportations in other parts of the country proved the failure of Reyes’ border blockade.

In Houston there was a 21% increase of deportations. On December 28, 1995, Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that in 1995, 51,600 undocumented migrants were to be deported. That was 15% more than in 1994, the first full year that Operation Hold the Line was in effect, and 75% more than in 1990. [42]

In addition to the lack of funding by Congress for more manpower, the Border Patrol agents themselves were starting to speak out against the border blockade by 1996. Agents were complaining that their jobs had become “monotonous”. Agent Wayne O’Brien told the newspaper that “chasing people is part of the Border Patrol mystique,” adding that his job was now “just a job.” [46] The Border Patrol agents were resigning because of Operation Hold the Line. In 1991, the vacancy rate was 21.7%. It had dropped to a low of 1.8% in 1993 but climbed to 23.3% by 1996. The federal government continued to refuse to allocate more personnel in 1996, leaving staffing levels insufficient to keep the blockade going. [46] Although officially, Operation Hold the Line was still ongoing and Reyes was now the congressman for El Paso, there were signs that border security was going to change. Operation Rio Grande was slowly replacing Reyes’ blockade with a combination of manpower and technology. [53]

What was not been articulated is that Reye’s border blockade could not be replicated across the border because of the lack of manpower and the controversies over the walls along the border.

Another issue facing the border blockade was agent attrition. Although Congress was slowly allocated more agents, attrition was putting more pressure on the agency. For the 1998 and 1999 fiscal years, agent turnover was a high 12% each year. Compared to other law enforcement the high turnover was “not reasonable,” according to an INS official overseeing hiring at the agency. [55] In 1990, the attrition rate at the Border Patrol was 6%. In fiscal year 1999 manpower was increased by 1,126 agents but 757 left that year as well. [56]

Agents blamed the problems at the Border Patrol on Operation Hold the Line, because agents “are so frustrated,” according to an agent interviewed by the El Paso Times in January 2000. It was not just the boredom of the border blockade that was frustrating the agents, it was the fact that undocumented crossers were “simply going around the ends of the line.” [56] Border Patrol Agent Guillermo Torres said that “apprehending aliens isn’t the problem…we know where to get them.” Torres added that Operation Hold the Line was only catching the “dumb ones”.

To deal with border crossing points that shifted away from the urban areas like El Paso, the U.S. government expanded on the Sunland Park wall. On May 22, 2000, officials started building a new 7-mile-long wall near Columbus and another 3-mile wall near Santa Teresa. [58] But the walls remained controversial.

Although it had been apparent almost from day one, the U.S. government was acknowledging that it was impossible to control the southern border with manpower alone. A “humbling acknowledgment that despite more than a decade of initiatives with macho-sounding names, like Operation Hold the Line in El Paso or Operation Gate Keeper in San Diego, the federal government repeatedly has failed on its own to gain control of the borders.” [73] In 2006, the Bush administration asked U.S. military contractors to bid on a “virtual fence” along the US-México border. [73] Secure Border Initiatives was the new strategy for border security.

Officially, Operation Hold the Line never ended, it just morphed into the prevention through deterrence scheme that border enforcement officials continue to use today. The strategy was launched in 1993 with Operation Hold the Line and its subsequent border blockades. From there it evolved into fences and walls and then after the Terrorist September 11, 2001 Attacks, it evolved into the Department of Homeland Security and then the Consequence Delivery System created by Homeland Security to discourage undocumented immigrants from crossing the border by escalating the punishment each time they are caught.

It is neither accurate nor inaccurate to state that Operation Hold the Line has ended. Border agents lining the border hundreds of yards from each other are mostly gone, but the strategy of deterring unregulated border crossings through border blockades with fences/walls, technology and enforcement remains to this day.

However, another consequence of the border security was that by 2001, México was becoming the “backdoor” into America. Operation Hold the Line was ostensibly to prove that blockading the border was the solution to the immigration issue. It succeeded in keeping the nannies and the gardeners out of El Paso while it forced migrants to the desert. It also took mom-and-pop smuggling operations and turned them into sophisticated human smuggling rings that continue today.
It is the sophisticated smuggling operations that not only allowed drugs into the country, but it turned México into source of America’s source of undocumented migrants from across the globe. [60] Global undocumented migration patterns have surged towards México because of the human smuggling organizations spawned by Operation Hold the Line.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States with hijacked passenger aircraft. This led to higher scrutiny at the border of immigrants and on transportation within the United States. Although undocumented migration was abruptly slowed down, the slowdown did not last long. Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants, according to Border Patrol records were back to the pre-9/11 levels by November 2002. Facilitating the transiting of undocumented migrant through the border was the sophisticated network of coyotes (human traffickers) that Operation Hold the Line created. Smuggling fees jumped from $20 to $40 in the 1990s to $1,000 to $2,000 per person. [65]

Smugglers weren’t simply crossing people over the river. They were using falsified documents to cross migrants through legal checkpoints and via the desert through a network of established safe houses. In late 2002, Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights said that “coyotes were a creation of the Border Patrol policies in the last decade, such as Operation Hold the Line.” [65]

Ample evidence suggests that Garcia is correct in his assessment.

The obvious question is whether Operation Hold the Line worked. Let’s explore that.

Did It Work?

Almost every news report about Operation Hold the Line includes apprehensions of undocumented migrants as proof of the “success” of the Reyes border blockade. In 1984, it was estimated that there were about 4 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. By 2004, it was estimated that 10.3 million undocumented migrants were now living in the country. [72] Clearly, Operation Hold the Line and subsequent similar operations did nothing to deter undocumented migration.

Part of the problem was how the border agency report apprehensions, the way it counts them. Instead of counting arrests on a per an individual basis, the Border Patrol reports apprehensions on an incident basis.[72] This means that one individual can count for one or more arrests in any given report on apprehensions. It also shows how the population of undocumented immigrants in America can increase while border officials are reporting dropping numbers of apprehensions because of border enforcement. Migrants who failed, simply tried again and again until they succeeded in crossing the border.

This is true today as the national debate on immigration dominates the country’s politics. Apprehensions are used both to signify border security failures or successes even with the same numbers of reported cases.

“Almost everyone gets in,” said Princeton’s Douglas Massey in 2006 who studied migration patterns. Massey, the author of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in the Age of Economic Integration, added that it was “just a matter how many times it takes” to successfully bypass the border blockades. [72]

Research into migration patterns from México discovered is that Operation Hold the Line, (1993-El Paso), Operation Gatekeeper (1994-San Diego) and Operation Safeguard (1995-Arizona) “had done a better job at keeping” undocumented migrants in the country than out. [72]

Operation Hold the Line was simply about money, the money that undocumented immigrants earned working the jobs most Americans did not want. Silvestre Reyes told El Paso Times columnist Diana Washington Valdez that his border blockade was not applied on the Canada-U.S. border because of the “countries’ economies.” As Washington Valdez paraphrased, “Canada is more affluent than Mexico,” and America didn’t “sense the same threat” from Canadian immigrants “coming over for U.S. jobs.” [62]

Proponents of Hold the Line, especially El Pasoans who overwhelmingly celebrated it continued to argue that Operation Hold the Line proved that undocumented migration could be controlled by increased border enforcement. The successes of Hold the Line touted by many ignored the objectives of border enforcement as a tool to reduce the number of undocumented migrants coming to the country. Most immigration experts in a 1995 University of Texas symposium agreed that “if the goal is to curb illegal immigration into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, then the operation seems to have worked.” [35]

Immigration experts in 1995 argued that Operation Hold the Line did “little, if anything, to slow overall illegal immigration into the United States.” [35] Undocumented immigrants simply shifted away from El Paso to other areas of the border to cross, often times endangering their lives more and funding trafficking gangs. Moreover, Operation Hold the Line did not address the method by which most undocumented used to cross the border, with legal papers and then overstaying their permission to be in the country. About half of undocumented immigrants overstay their visas. [35]

Most undocumented immigrants stopped by Reyes’ border blockade stopped people who lived in Juárez, according to Jorge Bustamante, a social scientist from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. Bustamante and his researchers interviewed migrants in Juárez waiting to cross the border. Bustamante’s research suggested that the immigrants affected by the blockade likely “worked in El Paso and spent their earnings on both sides of the border.” [35]

This raises the question, was Operation Hold the Line about stopping undocumented immigrants or was it a spectacle that did little to stop the flow of undocumented workers except for the nannies that crossed the border to help El Paso families?

Anecdotal evidence in January 1994 suggests undocumented migrants were not stopped by the border blockades, even in El Paso. A January 2, 1994 editorial in the El Paso Times profiled 12 El Pasoans that worked behind the scenes in 1993. One of the individuals profiled was the Rev. Flor Maria Rigone who raised money in 1992 and 1993 for Casa del Migrante, which opened in 1990 to house and feed immigrants in El Paso. The migrant shelter’s population increased from a normal 160 per month to “about 260” during Operation Hold the Line. [10] This suggests that as the border closed, migrants who normally followed the circular path from home in Juárez and work were now forced to remain in El Paso. [10]

Officially, the narrative was that Operation Hold the Line was a success. However, action by government officials betray a different reality. Reyes asked Congress for 150 more Border Patrol agents for 1994 and an additional 100 for 1995. In 1994, the El Paso sector had 622 agents. Reyes touted the success of his operation by saying “we have achieved our goal, generally speaking…our apprehensions are down to a manageable level.” According to officials, arrests of undocumented migrants were “averaging less than 200 per day,” down from 1,000 a day in El Paso before the operation was launched. [15] Congress did not give Reyes the agents he requested.

Also, Reyes had to reluctantly admit that undocumented immigrants had simply shifted away from El Paso towards Fabens, San Elizario, Santa Teresa and Sunland Park. [15] The fact is that Operation Hold the Line did not deter undocumented immigration. Instead, it shifted the crossing points away from the enforcement areas to more dangerous places. A 14-mile fence in California and the Reyes operation in El Paso moved migrants to Arizona. The increased enforcement not only endangered the migrant forced to cross in the desert, but hostility towards Border Patrol agents increased as well. [18]

Even the El Paso Times, whose editorial pages routinely proclaimed the wonders of Operation Hold the Line, had to admit in a 1997 editorial that “ironically, as successful as Operation Hold the Line has proved to be, it has forced smuggling rings – both those trafficking in people and in drugs – to work smarter.” [54]

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform reported on the first 10-months of Operation Hold the Line in July 1994. The report examined the human-blockade, the holes patched up in the border chain-link fences and the new helicopter patrols in the El Paso sector. It found that heightened border enforcement “has been more successful in curtailing illegal migration among local crossers than among long-distance migrants.” Basically, the study found that Operation Hold the Line was effective in keeping the maids and gardeners from reaching their job sites in El Paso than in reducing undocumented immigrants looking to settle in the country. A University of Austin report also found that because border agents were concentrated in certain areas, it was likely that undocumented immigrants “had a better chance” of avoiding detection once they had crossed. [27]

In fiscal year 1993, border agents arrested 1,212,886 undocumented migrants along the border, by fiscal year 2000, the number of arrestees was at 1,643,679. Clearly the Reyes blockade had no impact on the number of undocumented migrants crossing the border. [62]

Likely the most poignant example of the failure of Operation Hold the Line is that the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States rose by “nearly 5 million” to “8.7 million” from 1990 to 2000. “The national increase of undocumented immigrants in the past decade” worried now-Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D) who said that in his opinion the Border Patrol needed 20,000 agents instead of the 10,000 manpower they had in 2002. Reyes, although not admitting the failure of his border blockade, said that there was not enough manpower to “check the interior and make sure employers” were not hiring undocumented workers. [63]

Interestingly, as chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Reyes was advocating that the Bush administration allow the undocumented immigrants already the country a pathway towards citizenship. [63]

In 2002, the Public Policy Institute of California published a report that said that Operation Hold the Line “was a costly, nine-year effort” that “failed to reduce illegal immigration,” forced migrants to cross in dangerous places increasing the likelihood of death and “it may” have caused migrants to stay longer in the United States than previously. [64]

Once fences and walls popped up to shore up the manned border blockades, the questions about the success of border enforcement operations vacillated between success and failure. While officials and many newsrooms proclaimed its “success,” laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and migrant deaths betrayed a sense that “success” was not the appropriate descriptor for the border blockades created by Silvestre Reyes.

The Border Patrol went from 4,000 in the 1990’s to over 18,500 by 2013. Apprehensions plummeted from millions annually before Operation Hold the Line to less than 400,000 in 2012, [81] suggesting that the border blockades were effective. But were they?

A 1994 University of Austin research paper that analyzed border crossing data and interpreted various factors as to what may cause changes to border crossing patterns suggested that Operation Hold the Line’s “greatest effect has been to deter or make more difficult illegal crossings by short-term migrants residing in Juárez.” The comprehensive analysis shortly after Reyes launched his border blockade suggested that the operation mainly kept the nannies, maids and gardeners that transited into El Paso from Juárez to work in El Paso homes away. Long term undocumented migrants, those working deeper in the United States and for longer periods simply “moved elsewhere” to cross into the U.S. [84]

As readers have discovered the evidence shows that Operation Hold the Line was a failure. But are there any lessons to be learned from it?

Were Any Lessons Learned?

The flow of undocumented immigrants across the globe is driven by two primary issues – safety/health and economics. Refugees are driven by the need to find safety while economic migrants search for opportunity. On the U.S.-México border prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the primary source of undocumented migrants was for economic reasons mainly from México. As American immigration laws changed, the line between refugees and economic migrants became blurred as migrants adapted to increased border enforcement. Rising crime in México in recent decades because of the War on Drugs further made the distinction between migrants fleeing danger and those looking for economic opportunities more difficult to discern.

The problem with immigration border enforcement is that it is impossible to seal borders. As one part of the border is closed, migrants simply move to the open parts of the border. In the 1990’s two border enforcement operations; Operation Hold the Line (El Paso 1993) and Operation Gatekeeper (San Diego 1994) and subsequent border barriers reduced migrant flows in the target areas but increased them in the less protected locations. As enforcement increases so does the profits generated by human traffickers. Thus, human smuggling is essentially a function of border controls. [9]

Prior to the increased border enforcement on the U.S.-México border, those assisting migrants were basically luggage carriers charging to cross the river. By the 1990’s, as border enforcement increased, the smuggling rates increased. After 9/11 the smugglers were now charging $2,500 from $100 making it profitable for gangs to muscle their way in displacing the original mom-and-pop operations charging modest smuggling quotas. [9]

Another by-product of increased border enforcement is that Mexican migrants were no longer crossing back-and-forth as they worked, instead making the United States their home, albeit in an undocumented status. [9] Increased border enforcement turned undocumented laborers into permanent undocumented residents.

Another anecdote from the blockade is that it is usually assumed that El Paso’s maids and gardeners are undocumented immigrants from Cd. Juárez. A year after Operation Hold the Line was launched, it was expected that Americans would fill in the expected maid and gardener jobs that were unfilled because the low-wage earners could not cross the border. What happened instead is that Texas Employment Commission did not note “a change in the pattern” for requests to fill these types of jobs. [28]

There are several things that can be inferred from this. The first is that the jobs remained unfilled with families taking on the household work. It could also be that the individuals filling the jobs, documented or undocumented, were already in the city when the border was closed. Or, that undocumented workers simply crossed legally but worked although their border crossing documents (micas or border crossing cards) did not allow them to work legally. There is also the possibility that legal workers were already delivering those services before the border was closed to undocumented migrants. And, finally, the nannies and gardeners eventually found their way back to El Paso.

Nonetheless, in terms of low-wage jobs like housekeepers and gardeners, the border blockade had little impact on those job sectors as those who filled those positions in El Paso were either already living in El Paso, documented or not, or were using the border crossing card to cross the border, or those who paid them did not replace them with other El Pasoans.

Operation Hold the Line proved that the “availability of jobs” has had a “far stronger” effect on undocumented migrants flows than border blockades. [64] It didn’t matter that the border was blockaded, it mattered that once across the undocumented migrant could get to work because the jobs were waiting for them.

Silvestre Reyes agreed in 2004 that jobs are the driving force for Mexican undocumented migrants and that America needed them to fill those jobs. In a 2004 guest editorial, although touting the “success” of his border blockade, Reyes added that America “must recognize that millions of people have been living, working, paying taxes, and have literally been part of our community for years.” [70]

The most important lesson that can be gleaned from Operation Hold the Line, its subsequent iterations and America’s current immigration policy of deterrence through enforcement is that migrants are not stopped by increased border vigilance. A 2019 University of California study into the motivations of undocumented migrants found that they will likely make more attempts at crossing the border even after being deported and that they are likely to eventually succeed because most have strong ties to the American communities (family/work) that they are attempting to return to. Even the prospect of dying in the desert is insufficient to deter unauthorized migrants from attempting to cross the border even when enforcement is at its highest level. [85]

The most important lesson is that blockading the border is not the answer to the issue of immigration. It never has been.

There is another unintended consequence about Operation Hold the Line we must address. It is the rising scrutiny of legal immigrants crossing the border by officials. Over 400 border crossing cards (micas) were confiscated at the border in the first thirty days. Although some were confiscated because they were counterfeit, others were taken because holders were suspected of working in the United States or were deemed as unauthorized holders. However, it should be noted that how many were in violation is impossible to determine because there is no effective due process with which to challenge the seizure of the border crossing documents. Juárez residents simply stopped crossing the border because of the aggressiveness by border officials in the scrutiny of their documents. [84]

This scrutiny encouraged racism against migrants from both officials and from the public.

We cannot leave the exploration of Hold the Line without addressing the political career it launched. It can be argued that if there was a winner in Operation Hold the Line it was Silvestre Reyes.

The Congressman

By November 1995, the Anapra wall remained controversial, Operation Hold the Line “deepened racial divisions along the border” and Silvestre Reyes was positioning himself for the next phase of his life – the congressman.

The news conference that was scheduled for December 1, 1995, was conveniently after the political limits imposed by the Hatch Act. [38] It was simply a formality because everyone already knew, Reyes was going to run for the seat just vacated by Ronald Coleman. [36] Reyes’ two years as the El Paso Chief was about one thing – a border blockade.

With his “small army of volunteers” and “campaign headquarters” it was a foregone conclusion that Operation Hold the Line had launched a political career. [36] Operation Hold the Line had become the key point of a political career based on making Mexican undocumented immigrants – the nannies and the gardeners – the face of undocumented immigration in America. Chuck Maddox, former Mayor Bill Tilney, Jan Sumrall and Jaime Esparza were in attendance.

The announcement was simple enough, “My name is Silvestre Reyes and I’m running for Congress.” Reyes discussed minimum wages while interestingly ignoring the key issue that made his political career – immigration. [38] Without Hold the Line, Reyes’ political career likely would not have happened.

Even Reyes acknowledged that his border blockade “was politically sensitive” and “appeared offensive to many Hispanics.” [36] Immigration was the center piece of Reyes’ political career, but it was the El Pasoans that solidly supported Operation Hold the Line that made his political career possible. Many of them paying their gardeners and nannies in cash.

Former Mayor Bill Tilney said this about Reyes, “his is a reflection of the community.” Reyes fully understood that the blockade defined him, “I am well-regarded and well-respected because of what I’ve done in the Border Patrol.” [38]

Interestingly, during Reyes’ campaign for congressman, he was being criticized for not being a Democrat. George W. Bush said that Reyes was “running, unfortunately as a Democrat.” At a Black El Paso Democrat dinner Reyes told the attendees that “I’ve always been a Republican, I mean Democrat,” passing off his unfortunate remark as what “happens in the heat of the political process.” Reyes’ campaign treasurer helped Republican congressional candidates in 1992 and 1994. Two of Reyes’ key supporters were Dee Margo and Bob Sumrall. [47] Reyes beat José Sánchez for the 1996 Democratic nomination on April 9, 1996. [49] He went on to beat Rick Ledesma in November 1996 for the congressional seat.

In 2001 Reyes said that Operation Hold the Line was about “putting pressure on the Mexican government to meet their responsibility” on dealing with Central American migrants traversing México in their way to the U.S. Reyes added that he wanted to “prove” that America could “control” its border. But Reyes also said that the “1996 immigration act was mean-spirited,” adding that Immigration and Naturalization Service should be split into “service and enforcement” because the bureaucracy was “so bloated.” [61]


Operation Hold the Line was launched on September 19, 1993 by newly appointed border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes, an Hispanic Canutillo born descendent of Mexican migrants. Although the operation that suddenly lined the U.S.-México border in El Paso with Border Patrol agents to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing was a shock to many in El Paso and Cd. Juárez, it was proclaimed a “success” by the El Paso media, most El Pasoans, federal officials and Reyes almost from the beginning. The official narrative about Operation Hold the Line is that it was successful in controlling America’s borders. However, evidence shows that Operation Hold the Line did little to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing the border. What it accomplished was funnel long-term undocumented migrants to the deserts, give rise to human trafficking gangs, caused thousands of migrant deaths while doing little to nothing in controlling the borders against unlawful migrants and drugs. It also kept El Paso’s nannies and gardeners in Juárez and proved that Mexican migrants had little to do with crime in El Paso, the birthrates at the local taxpayer-funded hospital and school enrollments. Operation Hold the Line is the cornerstone of America’s failed migration strategy of “prevention through deterrence” that created the walls along the southern border, led to the rise of racism targeting Mexicans that likely influenced Patrick Crusius to drive to El Paso and kill 22 – mostly Mexicans – in an El Paso Walmart in 2019.

The Final Word

The Border Patrol Strategic Plan for 1994 called for the strategy of enforcing immigration law as “The Border Patrol will improve control of the border by implementing a strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence’.” The Border Patrol acknowledged that “although a 100 percent apprehension rate is an unrealistic goal, we believe we can achieve a rate of apprehensions sufficiently high to raise the risk of apprehension to the point that many will consider it futile to continue to attempt illegal entry”. [85]

“The logic of prevention-through-deterrence suggests that if the risks of apprehension are sufficiently high in a particular area, for example, by increasing the number of Border Patrol personnel monitoring the area, using improved equipment and technologies in order to detect unauthorized entries, and by erecting physical barriers, the number of unauthorized entry attempts in that area will decrease.” [85]

Ample evidence, especially Operation Hold the Line which launched Homeland Security’s current approach to border security (prevention-through-deterrence), has demonstrated that barriers along the U.S.-México border, whether personnel stationed along the border, fences or walls, or electronic detection devices do not deter unauthorized migration, but displace it leading to serious unintended consequences like rising violence against migrants and law enforcement alike, empowered criminal gangs and associated criminality and death.

Operation Hold the Line set the narrative for national politics where both political parties rally around the issue of immigration for the attention of the voters. The War on Drugs was conveniently ignored because politicians understand that undocumented immigration was what voters paid attention to. It wasn’t about solving the problem. It was about creating a splashy narrative that the solution to migration was simply to blockade the border, first with manpower, which was unsustainable and then with walls that because of the distance and terrain was also unsustainable. It was about tricking the voters into believing that the politicians know how to solve the problem, keeping the nannies and gardeners on their side of the border.

Look at today’s ongoing debate over immigration to see this same narrative playing out on television and on social media.

Author’s personal note: I moved to Europe for about two years as the result of Operation Hold the Line. Although I could travel back-and-forth between Juárez and El Paso, the animosity I experienced both by border officials and some El Pasoans made me feel like there was no place for me on the Borderland.


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  2. Eduardo Montes, “New Border Patrol chief makes mark with El Paso blockade,” November 7, 1993.
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Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...