Close the border for humanity's sake

Posted: May 26, 2003 12:00 AM

How many undocumented immigrants will die before the Bush administration realizes that the most humane act it can take is to close our southern border and thus stop smugglers from taking the calculated risk that financial profits outweigh the costs of getting caught?

The recent death from dehydration and heatstroke of 19 people among 100 undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America crammed into a tractor-trailer near Victoria, Texas, is the latest in a series of similar tragedies.

Smugglers have locked immigrants into sweltering trucks to bring them into the United States for years. Only death makes it newsworthy. Trucks ought to be inspected when they cross the border, for the protection of the undocumented immigrants as well as for U.S. sovereignty.

Last year, 145 undocumented immigrants died in the Arizona desert alone, according to Border Patrol statistics. Smuggling is often accompanied by violent crime, such as murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping.

Smugglers reap millions in profits. They collect fees upfront, then often abandon their clients in the wastes of the desert Southwest without food or water, or hold them in "drop houses" until their families free them by paying ransoms between $800 and $2,500, it was reported in Phoenix.

Yet, only 140 new federal agents were assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona this year. That's a pitiful response compared to tens of thousands who enter the United States every year.

Congress and the Bush administration are toying with plans to use state-of-the-art technology to monitor the activities of law-abiding Americans. The United States uses camera-equipped, unmanned spy planes in Afghanistan to hunt for terrorists. When are we going to use advanced technology on our border, including surveillance planes, electric fences, and, yes, U.S. troops to protect the states against undocumented entry as required by Article IV of the U.S. Constitution?

The leader of a ring that smuggled about 900 undocumented immigrants during the 1990s was convicted in April after two of his passengers died in a sweltering tractor-trailer near Dallas. Each week, the smuggler would bring as many as five loads of undocumented immigrants to safe houses in El Paso, Texas, where they would be picked up to be hauled to eager U.S. employers nationwide.

A Florida farm labor contractor was sentenced in April for luring undocumented immigrants into a smuggling operation that left 14 dead and 11 others to suffer in the Arizona desert after they were abandoned by their guide.

Last year, 94 people were prosecuted in Colorado for smuggling undocumented immigrants.

A Tijuana, Mexico, restaurant owner pled guilty to running a smuggling ring that brought undocumented immigrants, mostly from Lebanon, through Mexico into San Diego. People-smugglers are bringing undocumented immigrants from Pakistan and the Middle East into the United States for as much as $30,000 a person.

The leader of a ring that smuggled more than 1,000 Ukrainians into the United States through Mexico was sentenced in March to 17 years in prison. The smuggling operation began in Kiev, Ukraine, where people, referred to as "merchandise," paid fees of $5,000 to $7,000 each, were provided with Mexican tourist visas, coached to say "United States citizen" without a Russian accent, flown to Mexico and escorted to Los Angeles.

Accidents are a common occurrence, even on highways far from the border, when vans carrying undocumented immigrants crash because of high speeds, incompetent drivers going the wrong way or inability to read English road signs. The injured have to be cared for in local hospitals at taxpayer expense.

In San Diego in December, six undocumented immigrants were killed and 16 injured in a wrong-way lights-off head-on crash on the interstate, and two were killed and 20 injured in another crash in March. In Bowie, Kan., in February, a van rolled over killing three and hospitalizing 15.

Near Fort Smith, Ark., in March, five undocumented immigrants were hospitalized after a head-on crash. A crash in May, caused when a tractor-trailer driven by an undocumented immigrant jackknifed in the Boston Big Dig tunnel, will cost taxpayers $500,000.

In populated areas of California and Arizona, the illegal traffic often moves through tunnels, of which U.S. officials say there may be "at least 100, if not several hundreds." A big rig will park over the U.S. end of the tunnel, and bundles of drugs are handed up through a hole in the trailer's floor.

On April 4 in a parking lot in San Ysidro, Calif., near San Diego, U.S. authorities found a sophisticated tunnel with electricity, ventilation and a $1 million pulley system. It was the fifth tunnel discovered along the San Diego County border in the past 14 months.

The federal government has appropriated $695,000 to clean up the trash and waste in southeast Arizona to cope with the environmental damage caused by this human traffic. Arizonans say they need $62.9 million and 93 more employees to repair the damage and to protect against the threat of wildfires from mountains of trash.

We certainly can't depend on Mexico to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants. In 2003 alone, U.S. authorities estimate that smugglers will spend $500 million in bribes and payoffs to Mexican military and police to protect this illicit traffic.