by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
United States is deliberately channelling illegal immigrants into areas where their lives are at risk, according to two U.S. human rights organizations.
In an unprecedented action, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR).
The suit alleged that the Border Patrol's five-year-old "Operation Gatekeeper," applied to California's border with Mexico, violated migrants' rights under international law.
If such a finding was reached, the IACHR -- as part of the Organization of American States -- could formally urge Washington to change its practices.
The petition declared that 360 migrants, including women and children, had died in the California border area since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994.
Most deaths were due to exposure in the Tecate Mountains or dehydration in the Imperial Desert east of San Diego. A number of migrants also drowned in the swift currents of the All American Canal that cuts across the desert towns of Calexico and Mexicali.
The four-year toll, however, hides a trend of a sharply rising death rate -- from 23 in 1994 to 145 last year, more than total deaths along the same border for all of the 1980s.
The increase, according to the two groups, was due to deliberate efforts by the Border Patrol to channel migrant traffic from the population centers close to the Pacific coast steadily eastward to places where, according to one government document, "the days are blazing hot and the nights are freezing cold."
is part of a larger effort launched in 1994 by the Clinton administration to crack down on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexican border. Among other measures, the administration greatly boosted the ranks of the Border Patrol, whose human rights performance had been long criticized.
At the time, anti-immigration sentiment ran high -- particularly in California whose voters approved Prop. 187 that same year. That legislation deprived legal and illegal immigrants of a range of state services.
Operation Gatekeeper, and a similar operation, called "Hold the Line," in the El Paso, Texas, area, were designed to make it more difficult for migrants to cross the border in well-populated and well-travelled areas. Instead, they were forced to take more circuitous routes in dangerous terrain.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which controls the Border Patrol, argued that such a strategy would discourage migrants from even making the attempt. Critics, however, said it was also an effort to diminish the visibility of the problem and thus reduce its political potency.
According to the INS' own statistics, for example, the total flow of illegal migrants across the border had not been reduced since these measures took effect. While the numbers of migrants apprehended in the San Diego area along the coast had been halved, total apprehensions for the California border remained essentially unchanged from 1994 levels.
"The Gatekeeper strategy was to drive migration out of the public eye and relieve pressure on the administration," said Jordan Budd, managing attorney of the San Diego and Imperial Valley office of the ACLU, which brought the complaint.
While the immigration issue faded from the national agenda, especially after California's economy emerged from a long recession, Gatekeeper's impact fell with full force on the migrants themselves, as they were forced to move into ever-more dangerous territory.
takes migrants through the Tecate mountains, described by the government as an area of "steep mountainsides, canyon walls, large boulders, and dense vegetation (which) make travel slow, difficult, and dangerous, and the lack of food, water and transportation compounds the challenges faced by travelers."
The second route, through the Imperial Desert, also posed a serious threat to human life. One of the hottest places in the United States, there is virtually no water in the area. The Imperial County coroner even noted that "a person can't carry enough water to get across our deserts from Mexico."
The All American Canal, which remained unfenced, unlighted, and heavily polluted, also was regarded as extremely dangerous due to its width, depth and strong current. Yet another route took travelers through military firing ranges where unexploded ordnance dating back to WWII lies on or near the terrain's surface.
The INS has blamed the rising the death toll on more extreme weather events and on unscrupulous smugglers who, after taking their money, have been known to abandon their clients in the middle of these treks.
"We never thought smugglers would take such risks with human life," INS public-affairs officer Sharon Gavin told IPS in a phone interview from Laguna Niguel, California. "We never thought they'd be that bad."
But that did appear to have been a consideration for the Border patrol. Its policy was "to alter dramatically the pattern of undocumented aliens and force them into a much more inhospitable and rugged terrain," Alan Bersin, a top official, told Congress last year.
"Crossing the border illegally should not be a death sentence," said Claudia Smith, Border Project director for the CRLA Foundation. "It is not a question of whether we have a right to control the border; but we must do so in a manner that minimizes, not maximizes, the threat to life."
Recognizing the increasing risks to migrants, U.S. and Mexican authorities last June announced a new joint effort to reduce the number of deaths.
The program included such measures as posted warnings on both sides of the border, more lighting, more first-aid and rescue training for the Border Patrol, and water rings and other life-saving equipment in canals.
But since those efforts began, there have been more than 96 deaths -- or more 25 percent of the total death toll under Gatekeeper -- along the California border, according to the ACLU's Budd.
To draw attention to the issue, when Clinton meets Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo in Mexico City this weekend, the San Diego-based Border Arts Project intended placing 360 crosses in the city's central plaza. They were first displayed along the border fence between San Diego and Tijuana.
February 11, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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