San Diego Union-Tribune

August 23, 2001

Border-crossing deaths down
    Fewer immigrants attempt to enter; critics say INS figures incomplete

By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- From Mexico City to Capitol Hill, the United States
law-enforcement crackdown along the border -- including Operation
Gatekeeper in San Diego County -- faces increasing blame for what has been called a soaring incidence of immigrant deaths since the mid-1990s.

But the latest INS figures reveal for the first time a pattern of decreasing
fatalities along most of the Southwest border since the U.S. Border Patrol first began tracking the deaths in 1998.

As of Aug. 10, there were 247 fatalities, compared with 301 a year ago at
this time -- an 18 percent decrease, officials said. The death toll in San Diego County decreased nearly 60 percent from 27 to 11, although deaths climbed 11 percent in Imperial County, from 63 to 70.

"Fewer people are coming across the border, so we have fewer deaths," said
Associate Border Patrol Chief Robert Harris. "Certainly, the fatalities are
going down in areas where we have the right mix of personnel, where we are
gaining control, and, of course, the border safety initiative."

The decline almost parallels the 24 percent decrease in arrests of immigrants illegally crossing the border over the past year, immigration officials said.

INS officials are scrutinizing the figures as they evaluate the law-enforcement strategy and possible immigration reforms intended to curtail deaths.

Immigration analysts cite several reasons for the possible reduction in
immigrant deaths: stepped up enforcement efforts, improved safety and rescue operations, and declining border crossings prompted by a sluggish economy and an improved political situation between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Harris said he's cautiously evaluating the numbers.

"It takes one catastrophic incident -- like the smugglers in Yuma -- and then
we've got egg on our face," Harris said, referring to the deaths of 14
immigrants in the scorching Arizona desert in May. "Today is one thing.
Tomorrow could be a rainstorm."

While the Border Patrol figures still must be evaluated, the decline in deaths
shows that any policy changes must target the flow of illegal crossings, not
simply reconfigure the border law-enforcement strategy, said University of
Houston sociology professor Karl Eschbach.

"The number of deaths are very much the function of crossing attempts,"
Eschbach said. "Just removing agents does not necessarily decrease deaths. I have trouble with the Stop Gatekeeper rhetoric."

But critics are skeptical, saying the Border Patrol figures are routinely far
lower than death counts made by the Mexican officials and other groups,
which usually tally deaths on both sides of the border.

And the critics point out that the latest Border Patrol figures show that
immigrant deaths continue to increase in remote areas near El Centro and
Tucson, echoing their refrain that the law-enforcement strategy continues to
push immigrants and smugglers into hostile terrain.

Over the past three years, the Border Patrol's search-and-rescue units have
played larger roles in reducing fatalities, according to INS officials and
activists. Rescues have tripled in San Diego County since the past fiscal year, though they have declined through most of the Southwest.

"Regardless of whose numbers you use, the volume is numbing," Roberto
Martinez, director of the American Friends Service Committee's border
project, said of the immigrant deaths.

"When it comes to deaths, any reduction counts, but the reality is that
hundreds of migrants will keep dying each year as a result of operations that
were never meant to seal the border, but just to make it look under control."

Over the past four years, more than 1,000 immigrants died trying to cross the Southwest border, about 60 percent from exposure to heat or cold,
according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of
Congress. Figures compiled by the Border Patrol and Mexican authorities
showed increases in exposure fatalities in recent years.

Earlier this month, the GAO criticized the law-enforcement program in San
Diego -- Operation Gatekeeper -- for having no clear impact in reducing
illegal crossings.

Begun in the El Paso area of Texas in 1993, the law-enforcement strategy
began a year later in San Diego, with the added patrols stationed along the
border. The immediate and continuing impact was to curtail illegal migration in urban areas, with the hope that immigrants would not try to cross elsewhere in more desolate terrain.

While critics suggest that authorities should have known that the
law-enforcement strategy would prompt desperate immigrants to venture into dangerous territory, authorities say otherwise.

"It never occurred to me," San Diego Border Patrol Chief William T. Veal
said. "I thought it was logical to attack the worst point. It has surprised me."

Associate Border Patrol Chief Harris, who is now based at INS headquarters in Washington, recalls his days as a San Diego agent in the mid-1980s watching immigrants dash through traffic and sometimes getting run over. Now, he evaluates reports in which immigrants die of exposure in the Arizona desert or drown while trying to cross the All-American Canal or New River in Imperial County.

"Before they were dying after being hit by cars," said Veal. "Now, it's
exposure."

The strategy is not yet fully in place.

"We have gained acceptable levels of control in San Diego, El Paso and
southern Texas," said INS spokeswoman Nicole Chulick. "Our principal
efforts are now focused on the Arizona border."

Officials suggest that it may take another decade before the INS will
completely implement the strategy, although hundreds of Border Patrol agents have been hired in each of the past five years.

From the outset, activists blamed the law-enforcement action for the deaths of immigrants, with the Oceanside-based California Rural Legal Assistance
among the most outspoken groups. Their protests have been echoed by the
Organization of American States, the United Nations and others. Amnesty
International characterized Operation Gatekeeper as "deathkeeper."

Even analysts sympathetic to the border strategy acknowledged that the
law-enforcement effort has fueled well-organized smuggling operations like
those that abandoned the victims in Arizona.

Mexico's Foreign Minister Jorge Castaņeda called the law-enforcement
crackdown a disgrace, and both countries have vowed reforms.

Claudia Smith, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, believes
the government should return to the pre-Gatekeeper strategy, a much less
defined, catch-them-if-you-can scenario.

"The only solution to border deaths is to stop Operation Gatekeeper because
that's what is forcing migrants into mountains and deserts," Smith said.

But Eschbach, co-author of one of the most comprehensive studies of the
immigrant deaths, said a return to the pre-1990s law-enforcement strategy
would be a mistake.

"What does it imply if you take away the law-enforcement element and send
the Border Patrol home? The border then looks like it does in 1986?"
Eschbach asked.

His study for the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research,
released earlier this year, focused on the years between 1985 and 1998. It
showed that immigrant deaths increased slightly during the law-enforcement
crackdown as compared to the mid-1980s.

The reason?

Increasing numbers of deaths linked to exposure and drownings were offset
somewhat by a decreasing number of motor vehicle accidents and homicides,
which had been prevalent before the law-enforcement crackdown, the report
said.

San Diego's worst immigrant death tally was 113 in 1988, years before
Gatekeeper, according to the University of Houston study.

"The overwhelming rise of environmental deaths is for sure Gatekeeper,"
Eschbach said. "The border has become moderately more dangerous."

But he added the real toll likely is unknown. "There are probably more deaths than anyone is counting."

While the United States and Mexico negotiate for a new guest-worker
program that could lead to the legalization of millions of Mexicans, border
safety remains a concern.

A phone conversation yesterday morning between Bush and Fox touched on
their effort to overhaul immigration policies to make sure migration to the
United States is carried out "in a safer, a more legal and a more humane
manner," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

"President Bush is very concerned about people who have lost their lives
trying to find a better life coming to the United States," Fleischer told
reporters at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. Some observers believe the
guest-worker approach can work; others see the picture fraught with
complications.

"The reality," according to Smith, of California Rural Legal Assistance, "is that despite the drop in deaths and even with amnesty and an expanded
guest-worker program, substantial illegal immigration will remain a fixture of
U.S.-Mexico relations for at least the next 10 to 20 years."