NOGALES, Ariz. — A steel wall built here as part of a U.S. crackdown on illegal entry along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border has saddled this southern Arizona town with a tragic and costly spillover effect.
No sooner was the wall of surplus military landing mats, 10-feet-high and nearly a mile long, put up in March than immigrants began injuring themselves while trying to climb the sharp-edged, rusty edifice.
As many as three illegal entrants a day--men, women and children with broken bones, head injuries and gashes--are rushed to Carondelet Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales, the only hospital in this high desert crossroads of international commerce.
Bound by federal law and professional ethics to accept anyone needing emergency care, the private hospital is reluctantly absorbing the cost of treating these poor patients, a bill expected to exceed $200,000 this year. The city of Nogales must cover the $175 ambulance fee each time a climber is rushed to the hospital.
Some of the injured come from as far away as Guatemala in search of jobs and a better life in the United States. Many, however, are shoppers and laborers who live just over the wall in Nogales' border twin, Nogales, Mexico.
The unlucky ones include a 14-year-old boy who slashed his arm from wrist to elbow on a jagged piece of metal jutting from the wall; a man who fractured a pelvic bone and then dragged himself 60 yards to a downtown pay phone and a 16-year-old boy who lost a finger.
Some say it is only a matter of time before someone dies.
"We're treating some of the most horrible open dislocations, fractures and lacerations I've seen in 25 years of nursing," said emergency room nurse Linda Schmidt. "It's too much human suffering. I wish they would tear that damn wall down."
But immigration authorities insist that the wall, which replaced a droopy downtown section of chain-link fence riddled with holes, is the best defense against illegal entrants, particularly bandits who have terrorized residents and merchants in the border zone.
Some, like Nogales City Councilman Jack Tidwell, say the rash of injuries could be eliminated by raising the wall two feet. But others note that the climbers use ropes, footholds on telephone poles, even remnants of the old fence to get a boost on the Mexican side.
"Make it higher," argued Schmidt, "and we'll have to pick these people up with pancake flippers."
Unlike similar "steel curtains" erected near San Diego and the Arizona border towns of San Luis and Naco, the Nogales wall--which some Mexicans equate with the \o7 Muro de Berlin\f7 --is the only one bisecting a downtown business district.
Before the Nogales wall went up, people crossed through the tattered chain-link fence each day almost at will. Holes remain in the chain-link immediately east and west of downtown, but they are guarded by rogue "gate keepers" who demand money for passage. Those who do not pay are beaten and robbed. Many prefer to take their chances scaling the wall.
One alternative for daily shoppers and laborers would be border crossing cards. But there is a five-month backlog in processing applications for the passes, U.S. immigration officials said.
Nogales Mayor Jose Conchola has pleaded with U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's office to help speed processing of applicants.
"Sadly," Conchola said, "the majority of the people getting hurt simply want to buy groceries, attend a wedding, see a doctor, rent a video, eat at a restaurant or work--and then go home."
U.S. Border Patrol officials say the problems in Nogales are a direct result of crackdowns along the Texas and California borders, which have funneled ever more would-be immigrants to the Nogales zone.
In the nine months ending June 30, 45,000 illegal immigrants had been arrested, up from nearly 33,000 in all of fiscal 1993. And most are migrants from throughout Mexico and Central America seeking U.S. jobs, not day shopping trips, immigration officials said.
The Border Patrol hopes to stem the flow by expanding the wall two miles in either direction of downtown Nogales next March. "Once we have four miles of fence up, you'll see results," Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald predicted.
But Mexicans who breach the wall regularly say making the fence longer, or higher, won't stop all of them.
Last week, Alvaro Barreza and a dozen other men waited near a muddy ditch for an "all clear" sign from a lookout peeking over the steel planks to the U.S. side. Beside him stood a man who had been yanked from the wall moments earlier by a Mexican police officer who demanded--and got--a handful of pesos for his release. "I jump the wall at least two times a week, usually to buy clothes and food," said Barreza, 21.
Later that day, Diego Mejia, 40, wound up in Holy Cross' emergency room.
"I jumped the wall, broke my ankle and then the Border Patrol got me," said Mejia, who had hoped to land a job in the United States to send money home to his wife and four daughters in Guanajuato, Mexico.
"Now, they're going to send me back to Mexico," Mejia moaned, still drowsy from pain killers. "No, mister, I'm never coming back."