YUMA, Ariz. — Fourteen illegal immigrants who died in the Arizona desert this week are just the latest victims of a trek that promises prosperity but often ends in tragedy.
Southern Arizona has been a popular crossing point for illegal entrants since the mid-1990s as crackdowns in California and Texas forced them to brave the region’s scorching temperatures and desolate landscape in search of a better life in America.
“Unfortunately, people’s lives are so desperate that they won’t stop coming — they’ll just keep trying,” said Rick Ufford-Chase of BorderLinks, a Tucson-based public-awareness group.
“It’s simply not possible to carry enough water across the desert,” Ufford-Chase said. “So we’ve made the act of looking for a better job in the United States a crime that carries the death penalty with it.”
The immigrants died after smugglers abandoned them last weekend with little food and water in temperatures that reached 115 degrees.
The smugglers left them in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, telling them they need only walk a few hours to reach a highway. The highway was more than 50 miles away.
Only 12 were still alive when the Border Patrol discovered them Wednesday and Thursday. The survivors, many from the Mexican state of Veracruz, were hospitalized in Yuma with severe dehydration and related kidney damage. One was missing.
The victims are among 48 immigrants who have died trying to cross the Arizona desert since last fall. It was believed to be the deadliest attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since 1987, when 18 Mexican men died in a locked railroad boxcar near Sierra Blanca, Texas.
Johnny Williams, a regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, placed much of the blame on smugglers who charge people hundreds of dollars for passage into the United States.
“The people from Veracruz didn’t decide themselves to come to this cauldron,” Williams said. “These smugglers convince people that they know the way to go.
“In this particular case, they told the people it would only take a couple of hours. A few hours later it turns into a fight to their death.”
The Rev. Javier Perez, a Roman Catholic priest who visited the hospitalized immigrants Thursday, said they told him they survived by digging up roots and breaking cactus to drink its juice. One told doctors he drank his own urine in desperation.
“They don’t want anything more to do with the United States,” Perez said. “They want to go back.”
According to the Border Patrol, 106 people died while crossing southern Arizona’s deserts during the 12-month period that ended on Sept. 30, 2000, and more than 4,200 others have been rescued since 1998.
So far this fiscal year, 388,337 illegal immigrants have been stopped, according to INS reports.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said the deaths are the result of economic disparity between the two nations and of U.S. immigration policies that make it difficult to cross the border but easy to stay once they make it.
“What we have now is a toxic combination,” he said.
Government officials in the United States and Mexico condemned immigrant smugglers and pledged to work together to find a long-term solution for illegal border crossings.
Until a solution is found, border officials know they will continue to see illegal crossings that end in tragedy.
“The border is more difficult to cross than ever in history, and callous smugglers are moving the crossers to the more dangerous points,” INS spokesman Robert Gilbert said. “I don’t think we want to lose awareness that even before we had a national strategy, the border was a dangerous environment.”
On the Net:
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