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California and the West

Plan Seeks to Save Lives of Illegal Immigrants

Border: U.S.-Mexico campaign will use civilian flights to spot those who become stranded. Perilous crossing routes have increased fatalities.

June 16, 1998|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Tipsters will be rewarded for turning in immigrant smugglers and civilian pilots will hunt for stranded migrants under a border safety program to be announced today by U.S. and Mexican officials in Washington.

The joint campaign, which will make use of public service announcements and warning signs posted in Mexico near dangerous crossings, comes amid widespread concern over the rising number of deaths among undocumented immigrants who are following perilous back-country routes to avoid beefed-up patrols in places like San Diego.

Two of four "high-risk" areas being targeted by the program are in the Imperial Valley and eastern San Diego County.

Advocates for migrants say at least 51 immigrants have died this year after crossing the California border illegally. Drownings and exposure account for the vast majority of deaths, according to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.

Near Calexico in Imperial County, which has seen a steep rise in the flow of illegal immigrants, 27 people have drowned in the swift-moving All-American Canal so far this year. The Border Patrol recently began installing lights along the canal as a safety precaution.

The two other danger zones are Kenedy County in south Texas and the desert near Yuma, Ariz. Officials plan to map the entire 2,000-mile southern border to identify in more detail which spots are most hazardous for crossers.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service said the binational campaign was an attempt to broaden scattered efforts that are already in place in some spots across the country. One INS official described the joint effort as an "unprecedented" focus on safety by two nations that often have not seen eye to eye on migration issues.

"It's the next logical step in our effort to improve the quality of life on the border--to make it a safer place for everyone," said an INS official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Crossing the border illegally has grown more dangerous in recent years, and critics blame stiffened enforcement, such as Operation Gatekeeper, for driving border crossers to the mountains and deserts.

"It is this terrible border strategy that is causing all these deaths and near-deaths," said Claudia Smith, a migrant advocate in San Diego County.

As part of the safety program, the INS will pay the Civil Air Patrol to fly over wilderness areas on the U.S. side to search for stranded or injured border crossers. The flights will not involve military personnel or equipment or be used as spotters for the Border Patrol, officials said.

To crack down on smugglers who are increasingly leading migrants through dangerous terrain and often abandoning them, authorities will offer rewards in hopes of arresting those using risky routes.

Radio spots and border signs will seek to discourage immigrants from choosing the most dangerous routes, which often offer the best chances for evading detection by Border Patrol agents.

Mexico plans to establish a hotline for family members who are worried about loved ones making the trek, and Mexican officials will pass along some of that information to U.S. immigration authorities in an effort to locate the missing.

Officials plan to set up a procedure for identifying those who die crossing the border and for notifying family members. That will involve getting medical examiners on the U.S. side to share information with Mexican consular officials.

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