If Ziglar had shown up he probably would have thanked the agents for coming before he spent time talking about the sector's two new hovercrafts. He might have said the new crafts will revolutionize the way local Border Patrol agents will work to keep migrants from drowning in swift moving Imperial Valley canals.
Later during the conference, Ziglar might have talked about how the sector's new Huey helicopter will allow agents to pick up large groups of stranded immigrants.
None of that happened.
Border Patrol El Centro sector Chief Ken Stitt said the aircraft carrying Ziglar had "mechanical problems." Those problems forced the commissioner to skip the Imperial Valley on his way to San Diego from a stop in Yuma. Before appearing in Yuma, Ziglar had stopped in Tucson. He'll be appearing in San Diego today.
In lieu of Ziglar, Stitt stepped up to answer some questions.
He said the Imperial Valley and the El Centro sector specifically have been targeted for more resources, such as hovercrafts and horses, because the number of immigrant deaths and rescues here has not decreased as sharply as the overall trend border-wide.
Stitt said the emphasis on the Imperial Valley was not in response to vocal and written complaints and protests organized by organizations such as the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
"Not at all. The issue of migrant deaths, that's a concern of everybody," he said.
Stitt said the recent addition of more resources in the Imperial Valley proves INS higher-ups are aware "there is a serious problem here."
He added: "Complaints aren't what's generating this. Whether we had a complaint or not we'd still be doing this. No one wants to see any deaths."
Claudia Smith, border project director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said, "All I can say is that until the deaths became a high-profile issue we were not able to get them to get a search-and-rescue effort off the ground."
While she praises the new emphasis on the Imperial Valley, Smith said, "The reality is no amount of search and rescue is enough to a overcome a strategy of putting migrants in danger in vast expanses of hell."
Smith is based in San Diego.
Most if not all of the local Border Patrol agents who work here in the "vast expanses of hell" disagree with Smith.
They think the new resources will greatly help save the lives of immigrants and work more efficiently to keep the border safe. That's not to say agents couldn't have used the gear years ago.
As they milled about waiting for Ziglar, agents said the recent efforts to give Valley personnel some new tools with which to do their jobs is overdue and sorely needed.
Agent Mario Hernandez said, "It's good to see all this stuff. Before we had to do the job with very little."
Agent Robert Nelson said the horses in particular will be a nice addition. He doesn't think they'll have a problem working during an Imperial Valley summer because they will usually be taken out at night and every agent assigned to a horse will be thoroughly trained as to how to make sure the horse is hydrated and kept cool.
Hernandez said the horses will be temporarily stationed here as part of a pilot program. If they work, the Border Patrol might build its own stables.
Asked about why it took so long for the Imperial Valley to get resources such as the horses, Nelson said, "We came up with the need here and they came through with the resources. It's not really being forgotten about, it's more of it's our time."
>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org