Special Report Part 2: Operation Blockade's economic impact on El Paso

EL PASO, Texas - It was called Operation Blockade.

Border Patrol agents formed a human barrier to prevent illegal entry into the United States, instead of trying to catch illegal immigrants once they were in.

When it was implemented back in 1993 - 20 years ago this week - it had an immediate impact on the local economy.

"A lot of our customers don't even want to try to get documentation," Downtown businessman Tanny Berg said at a meeting of Downtown El Paso merchants the week "Operation Blockade," later renamed "Operation Hold the Line," went into effect.

The initial impact of "Operation Hold the Line" hit the El Paso economy hard.

"I had customers from Torreon that were asking me, "Is there a blockade in El Paso?'" Berg said last week.

Berg owned a Downtown wholesale business, three blocks from the bridge. What he objected to most was the name given to the operation by then Border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes.

"I had an emergency meeting with (Reyes) at the Camino Real Hotel two days after he released that name and I said, 'You will not name this "Operation Blockade.
It's got to change!' So he said, 'Alright, we'll call it "Hold the Line.'"

"Operation Hold the Line" created long lines at the bridges, that still exist today.

"This border was pretty much seamless for 300 years, but now all the sudden we were funneling them down to these three border crossings," Berg said.

Berg added that "Operation Hold the Line" did deter some smash and grab or grab and run type robberies in Downtown El Paso, because people could no longer freely run back across the border. But he said it also deterred some Mexican shoppers from coming across, although that was felt only briefly, until most of them got their crossing documents in order.

"Getting those documents sometimes took a week, two weeks, three weeks, sometimes a month," Berg said. "As the people had documents they came back and started doing what they were doing before."

And that was a huge relief, considering what the Juarez shopper means to the El Paso econony.

"If we took the Juarez shopper out of Downtown, if we took the Juarez shopper out of Cielo Vista Mall, out of Target or Best Buy or Walmart, it would substantially impact the sales," Berg said.

Richard Dayoub, President of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said he agreed that the impact of "Operation Hold the Line" was temporary, but the impact of 9-11 has been permanent.

"Once 9-11 came, basically, all the rules changed," Dayoub said. "up until then, we did begin to see an improvement. Wait times were reduced, goods and services were coming across the border at a pace that was beneficial to the marketplace, beneficial to the economy."

But getting the proper paperwork to cross is still a challenge.

"The U.S. Consulate in Juarez has the largest processing center for Visa's of any U.S. Consulate in the world," Dayoub said. "One-hundred stations and they can't meet the demand and so what does that tell you? It tells you that our immigration policy is so messed up that those folks are not being given a reasonable expectation to enter the U.S. legally in a reasonable amount of time."

As for "Operation Hold the Line, Berg and Dayoub said El Paso and Juarez eventually figured out how to deal with it.

But the effects of 9-11 left a hurdle harder to overcome.

"By and large," Berg said, "9-11 had far more impact long term impact on the way we live on this border than 'Operation Hold the Line.'"

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Special Report Part 1: How Operation Hold the Line changed the border 20 years ago

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