"We are seeing increasing numbers of people dying because the smugglers aren't worrying about the risks," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "They're thinking about the reward, which is the payoff."
While migrant deaths have risen, migrant rescues by the Border Patrol have risen even more dramatically. The number of rescue incidents more than doubled between 1999 and 2000, from 199 to 500. The total number of people rescued also doubled, from 1,041 to 2,454. INS established El Centro's desert rescue team more than a year ago to aid in the rescue effort.
The team is part of a larger border safety initiative the INS launched in 1998. Border Patrol officials have learned water rescue techniques and emergency medical care. Additional aircraft have been dedicated to surveillance efforts and Border Patrol vehicles have been equipped with extra water and medical supplies.
A simple economic trend demonstrates the increased demand for smugglers. In 1985, a smuggler could charge $50 for information or guidance that would get a migrant across the border. Today, the fee can exceed $1,000 in some areas, said John Hughes, who coordinates special operations for the INS's western region.
The promise of big cash payoffs has drawn criminal organizations into the human smuggling business, giving it a "whole new aura," said Deborah Meyers, an international migration specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Traditionally, friends or family members would help someone get across the border. Now the smuggling rings are more organized and more dangerous, she said.
Immigrant advocates criticize U.S. border policies, saying they have encouraged the more dangerous border crossings.
Operation Gatekeeper, launched in 1994, funneled unprecedented resources into Border Patrol efforts for San Diego County, the Southwest border's most permeable region.
The number of Border Patrol agents in the county increased to 2,264 in 1998 from 980 in 1994. The San Diego area border became nearly impenetrable, but it didn't halt migration. Instead, observers at the border saw the flow move eastward to Imperial County and other areas.
"It seems to be a predictable but not thought-through consequence of border policy," said Meyers. "The assumption was increased enforcement at the border would mean there would be less flow, but that was not the case."
Instead, migrants began taking bigger risks and death became a more common occurrence.
The number of deaths from heat exposure has risen dramatically as more migrants venture into the desert. The total was 139 in 2000, up from 87 in 1998.
A study released this week by the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston showed an increase in heat exposure deaths was directly linked to changing Border Patrol strategies.
The number of migrant deaths from auto accidents almost tripled from 16 in 1998 to 47 in 2000. Smugglers desperate to increase their profits pack too many immigrants into unsafe vehicles, or transport them in cramped compartments, said Kice.
Karl Eschbach, one of the authors of the University of Houston report, said it was difficult to tie auto-related deaths directly to changes in illegal migration. The INS is nonetheless concerned by the growing
trend, said Kice.
The Imperial County area had the largest number of migrant deaths in 2000, a total of 77, up from 63 in 1999.
But that was down from a high of 90 in 1998.
Imperial County is particularly dangerous to migrants because of
the vast stretches of uninhabited desert and the swift-moving All-American Canal. Drowning accounted for a quarter of all migrant deaths along the border in 2000.