Special Report Part 3: Operation Blockade creates tension, leads to illegal crossings in desert

Special Report: Operation Blockade created tension

EL PASO, Texas - Twenty years ago, a new Border Patrol initiative to prevent illegal immigration changed the border and created tension.

"We here especially in El Paso have been accustomed to people going back and forth across the river forever - since the Spaniards crossed the river and our families are intertwined," said Larry Francis, who was El Paso's mayor in 1993. "To shut down our border down that way - a border enforcement officer every quarter mile and to say you can come through a legal legal port of entry but no other way was a shock."

Francis remembers the then-leader of the El Paso Border Patrol, Silvestre Reyes, telling him about the new plan days before it happened.

"He says 'I'm getting ready to make a big change,'" Francis recalled Reyes saying.

And on the following Sunday, there they were and it caused a big stir.

Just two days after Operation Blockade started, an estimated 800 Mexican protestors closed the Paso del Norte bridge and confronted Border Patrol.

The protests in Ciudad Juarez and the ports of entry continued for weeks.

It led to the Juarez chambers of commerce calling for a boycott of El Paso businesses, calling the operation an "attack on dignity."

"It overnight sent a shock wave though Mexico and people in Mexico weren't sure that we weren't telling them 'none of you are welcome,'" Francis said.

Three weeks after starting the operation, U.S. officials changed the name from Operation Blockade to Operation Hold the Line in an effort to curb negative perception.

But it did little to quell outrage.

A month later, when Reyes proposed building a steel fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico, critics called it the "Berlin wall on the border.

"Operation Hold the Line was the first step in creating a border wall," said Dr. Josiah Heyman who researches border enforcement policies. Operation Hold the Line "was a tactical success but a strategic failure. It tactically moved people out of the city. It strategically just shifted them into desert areas, mountain areas, and into the hands of smugglers."

Despite the outrage, there were many El Pasoans who supported Operation Hold the Line, especially because Border Patrol officers were no longer regularly stopping El Pasoans and checking their immigration status on the street or in neighborhoods.

Operation Blockade or Hold the Line - like the dynamic of our border - was complex.

And depending what side of the border you were on, it helped shape your view of it.

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