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California and the West

Activists in Tijuana Mourn Dead Migrants

Protest: White crosses, makeshift altars remember those who died looking for a better life in the United States. Group finds blame on both sides of the border.

November 03, 1998|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Human rights activists and church leaders assailed government policies on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border Monday during a Day of the Dead remembrance for undocumented migrants who have died entering California in defiance of a 4-year-old U.S. crackdown on illegal crossings.

A mile-long row of 340 white crosses, most bearing the names, ages and home states of illegal immigrants who activists said have died since 1994, were planted along the Mexican side of the steel border fence near Tijuana's Rodriguez Airport. Many of the wooden crosses were marked simply "No identificado."

Organizers said the Day of the Dead holiday, traditionally when Mexican families honor their deceased loved ones through graveside visits or makeshift altars, was an opportunity to publicly commemorate many who died in obscurity.

"We want them to know that we haven't forgotten them, that they go on living," said Lourdes Arias, who works at a migrant aid center in Tijuana.

Rafael Romo, Tijuana's Roman Catholic bishop, blessed the crosses as well as an altar--heaped with sweet bread and candles, flowers and fruit--in honor of deceased representing nearly all of Mexico's 31 states.

Advocates say 131 illegal immigrants have died so far this year along California's border with Mexico, compared with a total of 85 deaths in 1997. The abrupt rise in border deaths, most of them in the inhospitable terrain of Imperial County, has spurred the Border Patrol to launch a safety program to warn would-be immigrants of the dangers and locate those who end up lost.

Romo conveyed concern among church officials over the rising death toll, which reached historic levels during the summer and has become a rallying point for migrant rights advocates and other critics of the Operation Gatekeeper immigration crackdown around San Diego. The ceremony occurred on the eve of California elections in which the immigration issue was virtually absent--a stark contrast to four years ago when the incendiary Proposition 187 was on the ballot.

Romo, standing a few feet from the border fence, urged officials in the United States to remember that "we are human beings, and everyone has the right to seek a better way of life." But the bishop and others said it also fell to the Mexican government to resolve social problems that drive people to search for that better life north of the border.

"In these kinds of deaths, we can't put the blame on natural factors," said Antonio Garcia Sanchez, official human rights ombudsman for Baja California. "The ones who deserve blame for the Mexicans who leave for the United States are the ones who have designed an economic policy in our country, who have not succeeded in providing satisfactory resources in health and housing and food and clothing."

North of the border, critics blame Operation Gatekeeper for driving immigrants into dangerous routes to the east. The program increased enforcement on the once-porous border in San Diego through fences, lighting and doubling the number of patrol agents in San Diego. Arrests last year fell to an 18-year low of 248,092.

Immigration officials counter that ruthless immigrant smugglers are at fault for sending people along perilous passages.

In Imperial County, at least 86 illegal migrants have died this year. The largest number succumbed to harsh desert conditions, and nearly half drowned in the irrigation canals that crisscross the fields. Migrant deaths have slowed since summer; the most recent occurred Oct. 14.

The expense to Imperial County of hospitalizing injured immigrants or burying them--each burial is estimated to cost $927--has prompted county supervisors to consider whether to declare a state of emergency in hopes of getting financial help from the federal government. The Board of Supervisors' vote is expected next week.

"We're talking about services that are running half a million dollars" every three months, said Janet Thornburg, the county's deputy administrative officer. "That's big bucks for this county."

At the border fence in Tijuana, Agustin Manzano Castillo walked along the row of crosses, touching those marked with his home state in Mexico, Jalisco. The 73-year-old, with two sons who emigrated to Milwaukee, Wis., said he empathized with those who trekked north to fatal results.

"A lot of people came to find work," he said, "and all they found was death."

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