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Border-crossers use disease-ridden river to enter U.S.

April 12, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE
  • A group heads downstream via an inner tube. Their belongings are kept dry in the plastic bags that float beside them. KEVIN MARTY PHOTO
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Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Turning their faces from the bright beams of four floodlights, six people clinging to one inner tube slowly floated toward a rapids section of the New River around 11 p.m. Thursday night.

The river's current was slowly moving the six forward.

The sound made by the rumbling motor powering the floodlights seemed dampened by the sudden presence of the people.

Everything — birds flapping overhead, the rushing water of the rapids — seemed quieter suddenly.

The six kept their faces hidden as they slowly bobbed toward the rapids. Not one said a word. Their silence contributed to an eerie stillness.

With his head turned, one of the men in the group didn't see a branch jutting from the north bank. The branch poked him in the head. He brushed it off.

One of the other men in his group looked over his shoulder at the floodlights and the photographer. Flashes from the camera bathed the six in a strobe effect.

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With their faces still turned from the floodlight's blinding rays, the six made hardly a sound as they got out on the river's north bank instead of crossing the small snarl of concrete blocks and trash that created the small section of rapids.

The tallest man in the group stood straight after exiting the river. He wore only white briefs, socks and a black vest fashioned from a garbage bag. All six wore similar black vests.

The tallest man carried a trash bag filled with his clothes and an inner tube. The six shared the one inner tube when they floated. They all carried their own trash bags full of clothes and supplies.

As the six stood on the banks getting their bearings, headlights of a U.S. Border Patrol sport-utility vehicle suddenly appeared in the distance.

The six looked at the vehicle approaching, plumes of dust in its wake. They looked at each other, then started jogging past the small section of rapids to a footprint laden spot upriver a ways where they could hop into the polluted waterway again.

The smell from the river permeated the area, a foul stench that one could taste.

At the river's edge, the six disappeared in the reedy foliage along the river bank but then reappeared, moving slowly with the current, making sure the younger members of their group had good grips on the tube.

Two of the six looked like young girls, maybe 14 or 15 years old.

As the group floated, a Border Patrol agent standing on a bridge overlooking the rapids section radioed in their location. The SUV's red and blue lights twirled. Agents downstream would be looking for the six.

"There's six immigrants in the water … six bodies …", the agent noted.

The six might get out of the river before the agents pick them up. A lot of people do. Enough do in fact to keep dozens, or hundreds, streaming down the river every night.

Most of the time, though, the agents carefully note each group that floats by and inform agents downstream to watch for the crossers. When the floaters get out of the river, agents try to take them into custody.

Agents don't go into the New River. They're not prohibited from doing so but they aren't required to, either. They wait, biding their time until they come to them.

Just before he drove away, one of the agents said, "Eventually they have to get out."

Moments after he left, another group of around six people floated toward the rapids.

In this tightly knit group, a young boy faced forward, his legs stuck out in front of him. An older man next to him on the tube looked like he was exasperated with the boy.

Instead of walking around the rapids, this group went right over, bumping and jostling on the concrete blocks and flotsam in their path.

As the young boy went over the rapids he cracked a smile. The older man noticed the grin and shot him a disgusted look.

As they passed under the bridge, a man standing atop the bridge asked the group members where they were going. There was no answer.

Were they going to Los Angeles? San Diego? No answer.

Were they going to look for work? There was no answer.

They floated down the river silently. This group hadn't been spotted or noted by the Border Patrol. Yet.

Less than two minutes later, another group came floating downriver. Some wore black trash bag vests like the other group had. One guy wore only a hat.

They took a different route through the rapids, crossing over a more treacherous spot. As they scratched their way through, the photographer snapped pictures. A guy wearing a blue Nike hat flipped the photographer "the bird."

After that group passed the bridge, another group soon floated downstream. It was the fourth group passing the bridge in less than 20 minutes, all total more than 25 immigrants.

A guy standing on the banks shouted "Que paso!"

One of the guys with his back turned to the photographer's camera gave him the "thumbs up" sign. Todo bien.

All night long Wednesday and each night before that for years, people have floated down the New River.

Lately more and more are using rafts to navigate the stinky waters instead of clinging to a tube.

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