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Rural counties on border struggle with surge of dangerous crossings

Locals pay millions in police and health-care costs, while illegals

As he maneuvers his four-wheel drive over ditches and dunes, Michael Martin thumps up against the walls of the cab like a tennis shoe in an empty clothes dryer.

"A single human being couldn't carry the water needed to survive in this desert," says the Border Patrol agent, gunning his engine to crest a ridge. Besides distance and rough terrain, there is heat - up to 129 degrees - blistering winds, poisonous snakes, and mountains.

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After recent crackdowns in cities all along the US-Mexico border, this forbidding terrain is the latest battleground between US border agents and Latin American immigrants seeking economic fortune in the North. Operations such as Gatekeeper in San Diego, Safeguard in Arizona, and Rio Grande in Texas and New Mexico have increased the number of agents and equipment - such as fencing and night-vision scopes.

But that success has created new problems here in Imperial County, where 400 agents patrol an area larger than New York State. A 10-fold increase in border crossings here since 1996 has resulted in a soaring number of undocumented immigrant deaths from exposure and drowning. Local ranchers complain of a dramatic downturn in quality of life as illegals cut through farmland, camp on private property, and burglarize homes to stay alive.

The increased stakes for immigrants have created a new demand - and higher profits - for more sophisticated smugglers, "coyotes," who use cell phones and night goggles to reconnoiter with vans that take the immigrants farther inland. But the inhuman terrain here has caused the smugglers to abandon their groups when the going gets tough, or when immigrants who lack the necessary stamina jeopardize the group.

The toll

In a single month last year, 7,000 men, women, and children were caught in the desert after slipping by agents at the border. Since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994 in San Diego, 366 illegals have died from desert heat, mountain cold, and drowning in a swift irrigation canal.

"This is a tragedy of staggering proportion," says Sheriff Harold Carter. The increased costs to the county in search-and-rescue measures, health and medical bills, and coroner and burial fees is an estimated $1.5 million per year.

"The cost of human lives is unforgivable and so is the soaring costs to taxpayers for the increased services necessary to deal with this onslaught," says Mr. Carter. "This is not a problem this county should have to bear."

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The problem is fueling concerns from here to Washington about US policy in stemming illegal immigration. Many applaud the government's focus on urban-area crossings, but say more manpower and equipment is now necessary elsewhere - as well as more stringent measures to penalize those who create incentives for illegals by employing them.

"The US government's increased crackdowns in urban areas have helped enormously," says Diane Jacobs, a San Diego county supervisor. Apprehensions in San Diego are at an 18-year low (248,000 last year) and prosecutions of smugglers have increased 10-fold since 1994 (from 30 to 300).

"But such crackdowns have only pushed the problem somewhere else," says Ms. Jacobs. "Until a more comprehensive solution is found, lives will continue to be lost and the quality of life in these rural areas will continue to suffer mightily."

Faced with the new costs for everything from ambulances to dive suits, Imperial County declared a state of emergency last Nov. 11, seeking relief from the federal government. But on March 17, the governor's Office of Emergency Services told county officials the impacts did not qualify for federal or state funds.

In February, a 26-county coalition was formed - including officials from all state counties bordering Mexico - to explore federal legislation that would reimburse local governments for the additional police and health-care services demanded for undocumented immigrants.

"The coalition feels that since counties suffer because of federal policies, the federal government should reimburse these costs," says Imperial County spokeswoman, Janet Thornburg. There have also been moves to increase penalties for smugglers, but a lack of space in prisons and on court dockets has meant only the most egregious are prosecuted and held.

Last month, a California citizen's initiative was introduced for the March 2000 ballot that would require the state to reimburse local law-enforcement agencies for the training needed in apprehending illegal immigrants.

"California voters overwhelmingly want this problem dealt with," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which is supporting the initiative.

But others oppose heavier crackdowns at the border. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charging Operation Gatekeeper with "deliberately driving illegal border crossers into harm's way."

"In some senses, Congress is being complicit in these deaths because it refuses to create bigger penalties for employers who hire illegals, or to expand its experimental computerized verification of immigration status," says Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Reform. "So we continue to have this weird mismatch in policy whereby we hold out the incentive of employment, but then force [illegals] into greater and greater risks to get them."

Caught unaware

For many, those risks are unknown or are minimized by professional smugglers who don't tell immigrants about the dangers they face. There are warning signs posted everywhere, as well as advertising campaigns appearing on TV as far south as El Salvador. But the lure of comparatively high-paying US jobs makes the risk worth it, immigrants say.

"I just wanted to work here about six months and then take the money home to my family," says Eugenio Lopez, a young Mexican from Veracruz, who was snagged by agents on bicycles after digging under a 15-foot border fence near here. He and five friends headed north two days before to look for farm work. They say they will play cat and mouse with the US Border Patrol until they make it through.

If successful, Mr. Lopez's $5 per hour salary - $200 per week - will dwarf the $30 per week he makes now in Veracruz. But Lopez says he knows nothing about the dangerous terrain that faces him on the US side.

Nor do many other illegals in holding cells here. Such unfamiliarity is one reason some 300 immigrants will be rounded up here each night, held for a few hours, and then returned by bus to the Mexican border. Computer records show many of the same people are attempting crossovers night after night - being caught as many as 45 times.

But officials estimate that for every one caught, three make it through. And the new sophistication of smugglers means many illegal immigrants are headed to places far beyond border states.

"American citizens need to know that these people are making it to Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa," says Jim Dorcy, a retired, 30-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's no longer just a border problem. It's a nationwide problem."

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