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Immigrant deaths on U.S.-Mexican border continue, despite efforts

Agencia EFE, January 25, 2002

EL PASO, Texas (EFE) -- Despite bilateral efforts to prevent the deaths of immigrants attempting to illegally enter the United States from Mexico, 28 would-be immigrants have died attempting the perilous journey since Oct. 1, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) said Thursday.

Since that date, another 51 immigrants have been rescued near San Diego, California, and MacAllen, Texas, the INS said. Border Patrol spokesman for the El Paso sector, Douglas Mosier, said Thursday that the agency engages in rescue efforts and has trained agents to handle medical emergencies.

Furthermore, agents have been supplied with rescue equipment for such incidents, he noted.

So far this year, the Border Patrol has saved the lives of four immigrants who were stranded in the desert near El Paso and in New Mexico, or who were in danger of drowning in the region's unpredictable rivers, he added.

The agency hopes that increased patrols and campaigns to discourage would-be immigrants from attempting the trek will continue to help curb the number of deaths, Mosier said.

The number of immigrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexican border increased from 236 in 1999 to 370 in 2000 but fell to 329 last year.

According to agency statistics, 47 percent of the deaths occurred in El Centro, California, 21.4 percent in MacAllen, 14.3 percent in San Diego and 7.14 percent in El Paso.

More than one-third of the deaths, or 34.33 percent, were caused by dehydration and sunstroke in desert areas, where many immigrants are abandoned by "coyotes," or immigrant smugglers.

Furthermore, 21.3 percent of the deaths were caused by drowning in the Rio Grande River, which forms a natural border between Mexico and the United States.

Automobile accidents also account for a significant number of immigrant deaths in the region.

Since 1995, more than 1,870 illegal immigrants have lost their lives while attempting to enter the United States from Mexico, according to the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

According to Mosier, the decrease in deaths along the border in the last year is due to campaigns launched in Mexico and the United States aimed at educating immigrants about the dangers of the trek and the rescue operations the Border Patrol has had to carry out.

However, immigrant defense organizations say the decrease is due to the fear sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, adding that increased INS vigilance in the area pushes immigrants to make the passage at more dangerous points along the border.

Currently, an average of one illegal immigrant per day dies along the border and increased vigilance does not entail a solution to the problem, according to attorney Claudia Smith, of the California Rural Legal Defense Foundation.

Last year, the number of deaths decreased in highly patrolled areas but increased in more remote areas, such as the California desert and in the mountains, she noted.

According to Smith's organization, immigrant deaths fell by 100 in 2001 with respect to the previous year. However, she said, the number of deaths still remains too high.

At the end of January, the Border Patrol and Mexican consulate in El Paso will launch a joint campaign to discourage immigrants from attempting to make the crossing in the winter, Mosier said.