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Slow-Motion Carnage at the Border

May 18, 2003|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

If a Boeing 747 with more than 300 passengers plunged into the desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix, it would be big news. And if, a year later, a jumbo jet filled to capacity crashed en route from El Paso to Dallas, that would get our attention too.

Imagine the reaction if the two tragedies were linked: that a technical problem in the air traffic control system was to blame or that terrorists had brought down both aircraft. Is there any doubt the federal government would move fast to prevent another catastrophe?

It is not that much of an exaggeration to suggest that a human tragedy on the scale of a jumbo jet crash is taking place in the Southwest every year. But hardly anyone notices because the carnage is in slow motion -- one or two deaths a day. And the victims are largely anonymous -- illegal migrants trying to sneak across isolated parts of the Mexican border.

About once a year we are briefly jolted by appalling incidents like what unfolded last week at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Police found that as many as 100 people had been jammed into a truck trailer in stifling heat. They had been trapped inside for hours, abandoned by a would-be smuggler. Eighteen died, including a 5-year-old boy in his father's arms.

That figure matched the record-high toll of a similar incident involving undocumented immigrants: Eighteen people died in 1987 after being locked in a stifling railroad boxcar in West Texas. Then there was the incident two years ago outside Yuma, Ariz., in which 14 people died while trying to hike across the desert.

Like so many facets of illegal immigration, precise statistics on just how many people die each year trying to sneak across the Mexican border are hard to come by, much less agree upon. In 2002, for instance, the U.S. Border Patrol counted 371 deaths along the southern border, while the Mexican government's count was slightly higher.

For a few hopeful months after the Arizona tragedy of May 2001, it looked as if the U.S. and Mexican governments had finally been prodded into action. Both nations had newly inaugurated presidents, George W. Bush and Vicente Fox. The two straight-talking ranchers agreed that the immigration control system along their shared border needed fixing and even appointed a team of Cabinet officers to start finding solutions.

Then came Sept. 11, and whatever progress had been made toward a U.S.-Mexico migration accord came to a dead halt as Bush's priorities shifted from Latin America to the Middle East, and from opening the border to closing it down.

Amid the paranoid fears of nativists who would put the Army and Marines on the border, the U.S. government has done an effective job of slowing the movement of people into the U.S. from Mexico. That is why so many would-be migrants are trying ever more dangerous ploys to sneak into this country to fill the menial jobs U.S. citizens won't accept.

Before 9/11, as a step toward making sense out of our broken immigration system, Fox proposed an ambitious scheme to legalize all 3 million to 5 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States. It was clearly too ambitious, given the politics of immigration reform.

But why not start talking with the Mexicans again, this time about something more modest? Say a plan to cooperate with a campaign launched by the Fox government to provide every Mexican citizen living illegally in this country with a secure identity card. These so-called matriculas are already issued by Mexican consulates to any Mexican citizen who requests them. Last year 1 million were handed out, 165,000 in Los Angeles alone, according to consular officials -- and we should make sure they're easily available to all.

Many banks and even police departments accept matriculas as identification cards. Would it be that hard for the U.S. government to do the same? If a matricula agreement included a U.S. government pledge that otherwise law-abiding workers would not be deported, the Justice Department could get access to the names and addresses of up to 5 million foreigners living in this country in the shadows. That would only enhance homeland security.

If Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. could live in the open, rather than in a netherworld where they must rely on smugglers to get across the border, there might be less incentive for desperate people to risk their lives, day after scorching day, in the deserts and scrublands of the Southwest.

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