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Deaths highest in nation

October 02, 2001|By SAM SCOTT, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — For the fourth year in a row, the Imperial Valley's unforgiving terrain and climate claimed the lives of more illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico than any other region in the country, immigration officials said Monday.

During fiscal 2001, which ended Sunday, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service found 89 people dead in the El Centro border region, more than 30 percent of all migrant deaths along the border, the government reported. The Tucson region, with 74 deaths, was the second deadliest area.

Spanning 76 miles from the Andrade Sand Dunes to the Jacumba Mountains, the El Centro region has led the country in deaths every year since tracking began in 1998.

Agent Dionicio Delgado of the El Centro Border Patrol sector attributed the high death figure to twin dangers — desert heat and irrigation canals. Last year, 24 immigrants died of heat-related deaths in the sector, he said. Thirty-three drowned trying to cross the area's deceptive canals.


"Most people look at the canals and think there's no current," Delgado said. "In reality, there's a lot of internal current. You're going to get sucked in. Even if you have years of swimming experience, you have to be pretty tough to get out."

As total deaths along the border have decreased, the El Centro sector's fatalities have risen 41 percent since 1998. The heat/canal combination helped make the region deadlier than the Tucson region, estimated by the INS service to be the nation's busiest illegal crossing point.

Many of the immigrants who die in Imperial County are lured by jobs on California farms, said Rodolfo de la Garza, vice president of Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank that studies Latino affairs. He said increased enforcement in less-dangerous zones, such San Diego, is one reason people tempt fate crossing further inland.

"They get funneled into the worst area," he said.

As deaths in El Centro have risen, those in the San Diego area have decreased yearly, dropping more than 67 percent to 14 in the fiscal 2001 fiscal.

Delgado blamed many of the deaths on "coyotes," the smugglers who take money to shepherd immigrants across the border and often leaving stragglers behind.

"We always find one or two," he said of bodies found in the desert. "Those people came in a group. Everyone made it except for the weakest person in the group. If you can't stay with the pace, the coyote's going to abandon you in the middle of the desert."

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