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Migrant Deaths Increase in Illegal Crossings Via Desert

Immigration: The overall toll has declined, but a U.S. crackdown has driven many to take risky routes, critics say.

October 02, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bodies kept turning up on Arizona's Tohono O'odham reservation this summer. Some days it was skeletal remains and tattered identification cards, baking in the hot desert sun. Other days were even harder: mothers sitting by the lifeless bodies of dehydrated children; wild-eyed wives wandering in the scrub for help that would come too late for their fallen husbands.

"It's like a war zone out there," said Henry Ramon, 68, vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham tribe. "This should not be happening."

Although deaths have declined 7% in the last year along the entire U.S.-Mexican border, the toll in the remote deserts and mountains of eastern Arizona has nearly doubled from 79 last year to 134, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. The agency keeps yearly statistics from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Border Patrol officials said this week that an 8-year-old crackdown on illegal migration in urban areas such as San Diego and El Paso has been a success.

Immigrant apprehensions--estimated this year at 950,000--are down about 20% from a year earlier. That's lower than any year since 1989, proof that fewer people are crossing, said Border Patrol spokesman Mario Villarreal.

But migrant advocates say the policy amounts to a death sentence--funneling thousands of migrants away from the relative safety of cities and into the harsh deserts of Arizona. And they warn that things are only going to get worse as the urban crossings constrict while little is done to stem the flow of poor Mexicans and Central Americans seeking work in the United States.

On the Tohono O'odham reservation, tribal executive Ramon said that between 1,500 and 2,000 people cross each day, many of them staggering from dehydration. Drug smugglers also have increased their trips through the reservation.

In their wake, the migrants leave piles of trash, clothes and feces. And sometimes their dead. Caring for the sick and picking up dozens of corpses are draining the tribe's budget and overwhelming its coroner, Police Department and hospital, costing the Police Department an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million annually.

"Among our people, it has really changed our way of life," said Ramon, who advocates allowing some workers to cross legally.

A study released in July by the Public Policy Institute of California said the buildup of agents along the border has done little to deter people from crossing. What it has done, migrant rights advocates say, is make crossing more dangerous.

"What this tells you is this is getting deadlier," said Claudia Smith, border project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in San Diego.

On Tuesday, to commemorate the end of the fiscal year for reporting statistics, Smith stood outside the Border Patrol's San Diego office holding a giant sign listing the names of all who have died since 1994.

She said the statistics speak for themselves: Although apprehensions are down 20% this year, deaths are only down 7%.

"Operation Gatekeeper isn't keeping people out," said Olivia Ruiz, a visiting researcher at UC San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. "It's just moving people east."

Border Patrol agents blame human smugglers, called coyotes, for the deaths.

The agents portray the coyotes as vicious opportunists, out only to make money from their human cargo, abandoning even children at the first sign of trouble and lying to immigrants about the dangers of the trek across the desert.

"The Border Patrol did not move the migration patterns to these corridors," said Villarreal, the Border Patrol spokesman. "The smugglers did."

Border Patrol agents in Arizona say they have noticed a puzzling spike in deaths of women and children. In the Tucson sector, for example, 31 of the 134 dead migrants were women, up from 18 in 2001 and four in 1999. Six children have died this year, up from zero last year.

Villarreal said his agency is doing everything it can to save people. There are public service announcements in Mexico warning people not to cross, and there is an entire unit--armed with cold packs and electrolyte liquids--whose members are certified in emergency medical and search-and-rescue techniques. This year, the Border Patrol rescued 1,764 people who were near death, up from 1,234 last year, Villarreal said.

But the risks and the horror stories seem to do little to deter migrants who desperately need jobs in the U.S.

As dusk gathered Monday night, Ariel Martinez, a slight woman with wide eyes and a ready smile, became one of the last migrants apprehended in the last fiscal year.

Dressed in jeans and a blue T-shirt, the 20-year-old from Oaxaca paid her smuggler $1,200 to get her to Denver to join her brother.

After being hoisted over the 15-foot fence separating Mexicali from Calexico, on the U.S. side of the border, Martinez was free only about 10 seconds before being caught by the Border Patrol.

A few hours later, Martinez sat in a holding cell, awaiting deportation along with five other women, all younger than 30, apprehended separately. One had bloody scratches up and down her legs where desert plants had raked her skin. Another had a cut on her arm from a nick while jumping a fence.

The women said they planned to try to cross again.

Martinez said she had never seen pictures of Denver, but she plans to seek work providing cleaning services or taking care of children.

Her younger brothers are relying on her, she said, for the money she will be sending home.

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