BEFORE SHE RETIRED last month, former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner admitted her agency had a role in the deaths of many illegal border crossers. Meissner told the Phoenix and Tucson press that the deaths of large numbers of border crossers were an unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of her agency's 1994 Border Strategy.
The Border Strategy, Meissner explained, sought to deter the flow of immigrants near busy, urban ports of entry. By blocking off these favored crossing points, the only options available to people wishing to walk into the United States would be to cross through desert and mountain terrain.
Meissner has admitted having blood on her hands, but precisely how many people have died as a direct result of the 1994 Border Strategy remains a matter of dispute. The INS and the Border Patrol maintain a category of casualties they say are "smuggler-related." Deaths attributed as smuggler-related may result from traffic accidents involving vehicles allegedly driven by smugglers, and thus presumably can't be blamed on policy, enforcement or anything other than bad driving and packing too many people into tight spaces.
But Tucson border rights advocate and attorney Isabel Garcia insists that the INS itself is culpable in all border crossing-related deaths, even those involving smugglers.
"People wouldn't be forced to hire a smuggler or cross the desert at risk to themselves if we had a realistic immigration policy," said Garcia.
Since 1994, the number of crossing-related deaths along our entire border with Mexico has pushed over the 1,600 mark.
Ron Sanders, former Chief Patrol Agent of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, told the Weekly the deaths within the Tucson Sector in fiscal year 2000 were, in his opinion, neither unforeseen nor unexpected.
Far from it. Sanders, who retired from the Border Patrol in July, 1999, says the record number of deaths in areas such as the Tohono O'odham reservation's West Desert was due to a deliberate shift in local Border Patrol policy a few months before his departure.
The body count has risen tremendously. From October 1, 1999 to September 31, 2000, 74 people died in illegal crossing-related incidents within the Tucson Sector, according Rob Daniels, the patrol's public information officer. Forty-one of those people died of heat exposure and three died due to exposure to the cold.
In contrast, only 25 people died during the entire four years Sanders was the Tucson Sector chief. In 1995 the sector experienced no crossing-related fatalities at all; 12 people died in 1996 (including eight who drowned in a flooded culvert), two died in 1997 and 11 perished in 1998.
Now, just since October of this year, 11 people have already perished attempting to enter the U.S. within the Tucson Sector.
Sanders says that before January, 1998, when the INS changed the local strategy, he was able to deploy his agents along the border with a sensitivity to the most treacherous crossing areas. "Every morning at staff meetings, I would ask for a report from our air patrols on the availability of water in the (cattle) tanks," he said. "When the tanks began to dry up, I would assign more (agents) in the hope we could prevent a disaster from occurring. When the desert began to heat up in the spring, all of my aircraft were assigned to our high-risk areas."
Comparing the 25 deaths on Sanders' watch to the 74 in fiscal 2000, it looks like Sanders was either lucky or doing something right.
Whatever Sanders was doing, it all came to a grinding halt during the winter of 1999, when regional INS commissioner Johnny Williams called a meeting at the Nogales Border Patrol station.
John Koren, 53, a retired patrol agent formerly in charge of the Douglas station, remembers the meeting as if it were yesterday. "Williams told us we had a new strategy. Under the new plan, all available (agents) were to go to Nogales under Phase One of the plan."
The shift of personnel to Nogales left some patrol stations in a precarious position.
"I remember him pointing at me," said Koren, "and telling me I was going to get overrun by illegals. And I would like it. Then he told me I wasn't going to get any resources (promised agents). He (Williams) then looked at (Jeff) Calhoun, the (patrol agent in charge) of the Willcox station, and said, 'You're next.'"
Sanders vividly recalls telling Williams that the sector needed to maintain coverage in high-risk areas or the number of people dying in the desert would skyrocket.
"He didn't dismiss me out of hand," said Sanders, "but Williams told us that Phase Two would be centered around Douglas, and whenever we managed to get control of Douglas, then we'll be able to get to the West Desert.
"That still hasn't happened," said Sanders, who still gets daily calls from friends in uniform.
"After the plan was implemented, I remember coverage falling off everywhere (within the sector) in favor of the Nogales buildup," said Koren. "Coverage in the West Desert was limited to somewhere around seven agents per shift. That's nothing. For an area that big, that's a drop in the bucket.
"In the spring of 1999, they took (a total of) 27 agents from Naco, Willcox and Douglas and sent them to reinforce Nogales," said Koren. The temporary details to Nogales merely pushed illegal traffic to other locations.
"Our (Douglas) station was overrun," said Koren. "The ranchers were up in arms. Then in May, Meissner and Williams held a press conference to announce they were sending 27 agents into Douglas. These were the same agents they had sent to Nogales earlier. But the press ate it up."
In May, Sanders met in San Diego with Border Patrol chief Gus De La Vina. "I told the chief I was disturbed by his proposal and the unbalanced coverage of the plan in general," Sanders said. "It became clear De La Vina wasn't going to budge."
When the temperature suddenly dropped on the Tohono O'odham reservation in April, 1999, Daniels remembers 350 people being gathered up and transported to the tiny emergency medical facilities of the Indian Health Service in Sells.
These "rescues" by the Border Patrol came about when people living on the reservation began calling authorities about people wandering on the roadside begging to be picked up. An Indian Health Services worker told the Weekly that by the time the Border Patrol was on the scene, "It was more like a mass surrender than any sort of rescue."
On July 7, 2000, with deaths skyrocketing in the sector, Gus De La Vina and Johnny Williams came to Tucson to join Tucson Sector Chief David Aguilar in announcing Operation Skywatch.
Williams said the new program would add seven planes to the sector's existing nine aircraft. The pilots would scout for smugglers, who endanger the lives of people seeking a better way of life, while looking out for the safety of the crossers, said Williams.
Nine planes would be deployed to cover the West Desert. Already 52 people had died in the Tucson Sector between October 1, 1999 and June 30, 2000. Before the end of the fiscal year in September, 22 more crossers would die.
Responding to the patrol's "rescue" PR, Douglas mayor Ray Borane likened the Border Patrol's new program to throwing a baby into a swimming pool and then, upon pulling the baby out of the water, announcing, "We rescued the baby."
By the end of fiscal 2000, the Border Patrol reported 1,349 rescues, with 546 of them occurring in the West Desert. But eliminating the 350-member mass rescue over the Easter holiday in Sells, patrol stats show a total of only 196 rescues in the West Desert over a 12-month period.
"The shift in policy and coverage of the border was unconscionable," said Sanders. "They knew the consequences of their actions. They did it anyway." Many of these deaths could have been avoided, said the former Tucson Sector chief.
Sanders says the culpability buck stops with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
According to Sanders, Reno violated the law by failing to do her "duty to control and guard the border against the illegal entry of aliens," as prescribed under Title 8, Section 1103 of the U.S Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.
The 1994 Border Strategy calls for the Border Patrol to prevent illegal entry along the border and to strengthen enforcement of the nation's immigration laws. Sanders says the Congressionally-approved Border Strategy was radically altered by regional INS commissioner Johnny Williams to a point where coverage by the patrol in certain areas was virtually non-existent. Williams' action on behalf of the Attorney General "is, in my opinion, an abuse of discretion under U.S. law," said Sanders.
Tucson immigration attorney John Crow doesn't agree. The issue is somewhat analogous, says Crow, to bringing a suit before a Superior Court judge concerning a question of police deployment in various Tucson neighborhoods. "I don't think that's the kind of case a judge would hear. Not when a management team is in place to make those decisions," said Crow. "Rather than the issue being one of 'abuse of discretion,' it is the opposite: It is the essence of discretion."
Tucson immigration attorney Jesus Romos, in contrast, told the Weekly that "a suit against the INS and the Department of Justice could be actionable if there was a change in policy and a resulting conscious disregard for the safety and well-being of people crossing the border."
In a recent debate with Tucson Sector Chief David Aguilar, border rights advocate Garcia punched home her point when she told the audience, "There wouldn't be any border-crosser deaths or a need for Border Patrol 'rescues' if the United States had a fair and equitable immigration policy that actually worked."