By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Six people believed to be undocumented immigrants died and another nine were injured, some critically, after the pickup truck they were in slammed into a security barrier at a U.S. Navy base in Texas, state public safety officials said Thursday.
The accident at Naval Air Station Kingsville, in rural Kleberg County south of Corpus Christi, happened around midnight on Wednesday as a Kingsville police officer was pursuing the pickup truck through town, said Senior Corporal Charlie Ramirez of the Texas Department of Transportation.
Coastal Kleberg County and neighboring Brooks County to the southwest, both near the Mexican border, are prime areas in the debate over illegal immigration. Local officials say so many undocumented immigrants are dying in the area that they are running out of space to bury them.
Deaths of illegal immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are up 27 percent in the past year as border crossers use increasingly remote and dangerous areas, according to a report released this week by the National Foundation for American Policy, a Washington-based research group that is calling for a temporary worker program.
Nationally, 477 illegal immigrants died at the border in 2012, compared to 375 in 2011, even though illegal immigration generally is down, the report said.
In the Texas wreck, the pickup driver swerved onto the Naval base, where Navy and Marine Corps jet pilots are trained, in an apparent attempt to avoid the police, Ramirez said. The driver sped past the first guard gate and the guard at the second gate activated a barrier that prevents people from driving onto the base, he said. The pickup struck the barrier.
Those hurt were taken to a nearby hospital, some with life-threatening injuries, Ramirez said.
Officials said it was too early to determine where the victims are from or where they were heading. Ramirez did not know the ages or gender of the victims.
Immigrant smugglers, usually connected to Mexico's drug gangs, charge a would-be immigrant between $2,000 and $7,000 to get them across the border, often promising to take them to cities like Houston, San Antonio or Chicago to join families or find jobs.
Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez said so many undocumented immigrants have died in his 7,000-person county recently that he has run out of space to bury them. The county's paupers' cemetery - studded with metal markers reading simply "Skeletal Remains" and the date the remains were found - is full, he said.
"I can't give raises, I can't fix county roads, I can't provide other services, because I'm having to do this," Ramirez said of burying undocumented immigrants.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Vicki Allen)