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Immigrants risk losing lives they hope to improve

Where Everything Is Wrong
Another five people whose only mistake was the hope of finding a job in this country have died since last Sunday. The desert did not forgive them their innocent ambition, adding them instead to the growing number of illegal immigrants killed by desert heat.

-- From an editorial, Arizona Daily Star, June 11, 2000

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bisbee, Ariz.

Unbidden, and in some cases unwelcome, they come to the United States by the hundreds of thousands each year to harvest our crops, keep our packing plants and restaurants running and build new homes for increasing numbers of affluent Americans. Desperately needed by U.S. industries, they come to do the work Americans don’t want to do, living in conditions most Americans would shun, and often sending the bulk of their wages to families back home.

These are the undocumented immigrants who often, in their efforts to cross the border undetected, risk losing the life they hope to improve. And often -- far too often their advocates say -- they die in the mountains or desert before they get their chance.

As the number of deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border has risen -- and it has risen dramatically in recent months -- the chorus of critics has grown. And in a surprising development, some of the most compelling new voices are former members of the very agency responsible for keeping illegal immigrants out.

Former officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector have said in a series of astonishing revelations that the agency has blood on its hands. The border patrol is the uniformed law enforcement arm of the INS. The patrol’s Tucson Sector includes all but the westernmost section of the Arizona border.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said in a talk to new border patrol recruits last November that the rising number of deaths has been the unfortunate and unforeseen result of a strategy shift that forced determined immigrants to attempt crossings over dangerous terrain but failed to take the steps that might have prevented their deaths.

During Meissner’s tenure, which ended with her resignation in mid-November, the INS budget nearly tripled to $4.3 billion, and the size of the border patrol more than doubled.

The growing number of deaths within the Tucson Sector has implications for the rest of the southern border states where death rates are on the rise. Since 1994, the number of crossing-related deaths along the entire U.S. border with Mexico has pushed over the 1,600 mark.

Although no one can say with certainty how many die attempting to cross the border, the border patrol gives regular reports on those found dead. According to Rob Daniels, public information officer for the agency, 74 people died in illegal crossing-related incidents within the Tucson Sector from Oct. 1, 1999, to Sept. 31, 2000.

Forty-one died of heat exposure, and three died due to exposure to the cold.

Since Oct. 1, 18 people have already perished attempting to enter the United States within the sector.

In past years, deaths along the same section of border had been far less frequent. For example, in a four-year period when Ron Sanders, one of the agency whistleblowers, was the chief patrol agent for the Tucson Sector, 25 people died. That four-year death toll, while too high in Sanders’ view, is barely higher than the number of deaths reported in the past four months alone. Sanders retired in July 1999.

In 1995, under Sanders’ care, the Tucson Sector actually experienced no crossing-related fatalities; then 12 people died in 1996 (including eight who drowned in a flooded culvert), two died in 1997 and 11 perished in 1998.

Press accounts from 1996 indicate that Sanders began making the safety of border-crossers a top priority, even before the apprehending of illegal entrants. As part of the effort, Saunders shut down the major traffic checkpoints and reassigned agents to dangerous crossing areas like the West Desert on the Tohono O’odham Reservation.

Sanders, who lives in retirement just north of Tucson, told NCR he is haunted not only by the numbers of deaths but by his memories of coming upon dead bodies in the desert. “If you’ve ever seen someone who’s died in the desert you’ll never forget it,” he said.

Meissner’s admission of guilt in her talk to border patrol recruits made news in Phoenix and Tucson. It also provoked a challenge from Sanders, who said in an interview with NCR that the deaths were neither unforeseen nor unexpected, but totally predictable.

The problem was not with the strategy per se, but with another shift that took place in early 1999, Sanders said. Most agents were at that point diverted to the urban crossing points, leaving the isolated mountainous desert areas unattended. Previously agents in those areas had served as a safety net for crossers who became dehydrated or lost.

Sanders said that the policy shift in 1999 was neither reviewed nor approved by Congress. It was an “ad hoc” policy, he said.

Sanders said that before January 1999, when the INS changed the local strategy, he was able to deploy his agents along the border with a sensitivity to the most treacherous crossing areas. “Every morning at staff meetings, I would ask for a report from our air patrols on the availability of water in the [cattle] tanks,” he said. “When the tanks began to dry up, I would assign more [agents] in the hope we could prevent a disaster from occurring. When the desert began to heat up in the spring, all of my aircraft were assigned to our high-risk areas.”

The precise number of people who have died as a direct result of the border strategy remains a matter of dispute. The INS and its border patrol maintain a category of casualties they say are “smuggler-related.” Such deaths may result from traffic accidents involving vehicles allegedly driven by smugglers, and thus presumably can’t be blamed on policy or enforcement. Their immediate cause may be bad driving or packing too many people into a tight space with inadequate ventilation.

But some activists insist that the INS itself is culpable in all border crossing-related deaths, even those involving smugglers.

“People wouldn’t be forced to hire a smuggler or cross the desert at risk to themselves if we had a realistic immigration policy,” said Isabel Garcia, Tucson attorney and border rights advocate with the Coalición Derechos Humanos.

Sanders’ humane approach to border strategy came to a grinding halt during the winter of 1999, when Western Regional INS Commissioner Johnny Williams called a meeting at the Nogales, Ariz., border patrol station. Nogales is part of the Tucson sector.

Williams announced a new plan under which all available agents would be reassigned to Nogales. John Koren, 53, a retired patrol agent formerly in charge of the Douglas, Ariz., station, remembers the meeting as if it were yesterday. “Williams told us we had a new strategy. Under the new plan, all available [agents] were to go to Nogales.” The shift of personnel to Nogales left some patrol stations in a precarious position.

Sanders vividly recalls protesting. He said he told Williams that the sector needed to maintain coverage in high-risk areas or the number of people dying in the desert would skyrocket.

The 1994 border strategy calls for the border patrol to prevent illegal entry along the border and to strengthen enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. Sanders said the congressionally approved border strategy was radically altered by Williams to a point where coverage by the patrol in certain areas was virtually non-existent.

Williams’ action on behalf of the attorney general “is, in my opinion, an abuse of discretion under U.S. law,” said Sanders who says he was a whistleblower even during his last tour with the border patrol. “I even testified before Congress. I told them what was happening here. I told them how this policy is killing people.”

When the temperature suddenly dropped on the Tohono O’odham reservation in April 1999, Daniels remembers 350 people being gathered up and transported to the tiny emergency medical facilities of the Indian Health Service in Sells.

These “rescues” by the border patrol came about when people living on the reservation began calling authorities about people wandering on the roadside begging to be picked up. An Indian Health Service worker told the Tucson Weekly that by the time the border patrol was on the scene, “It was more like a mass surrender than any sort of rescue.”

In July 2000, with the number of deaths skyrocketing, Williams came to Tucson to join Tucson Sector Chief David Aguilar in announcing Operation Skywatch. Williams said the new program would add seven planes to the sector’s nine aircraft. The pilots would scout for smugglers, while looking out for the safety of crossers. By September, though, 22 more crossers would die.

Williams did not respond to telephone messages from a reporter.

Garcia told NCR, “There wouldn’t be any border-crosser deaths or a need for border patrol ‘rescues’ if the United States had a fair and equitable immigration policy that actually recognized we [Americans] are dependent on Mexican workers. The construction, hotel, meat packing and agriculture industries wouldn’t be able to keep operating if they were not able to employ cheap Mexican labor.”

“So, why are we forcing people to run a deadly obstacle course to find employment in U.S. industries which are begging for them?” Garcia asked rhetorically.

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001