DYING TO COME TO AMERICA - Immigrant Death Toll Soars; Water Stations Sabotaged

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

By Miriam Raftery

Border AngelsSeptember 1, 2008 (Holtville)--“These people came here looking for opportunity. Not one of them expected to die,” said Enrique Morones, erecting a hand-made wooden cross at a gravesite marked only by a brick engraved with the name Jane Doe.

A few years ago, there were twenty bricks in this pauper’s graveyard at Holtville in Imperial County, final resting ground for immigrants who died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border in San Diego and Imperial Counties.  Now there are 656. 

No trees shade this pauper’s graveyard from the scorching summer sun.  There is no grass, only an expanse of bare earth and bricks.  Many of the dead remain unidentified; other bricks bear names of men, women and children buried here. The graveyard does not include bodies of other border crossers buried in Mexico.

“I have a letter from a mother whose son died crossing,” said Morones, founder of Border Angels (Angeles de la Frontera, www.borderangels.org), a nonprofit organization that provides water stations and other humanitarian aid to prevent deaths among people crossing rugged desert and mountain terrain in San Diego’s East County and Imperial County.  “He was 19 and about to get married.  She pleaded with him not to go.  He just wanted a little money to get a house in Mexico. He did come home—but in a casket.”

 Before construction of the border wall began in 1994 as part of Operation Gatekeeper, one or two people died each month attempting to cross into the U.S.  To date,  only about 100 miles of the proposed 2,000 border wall have been built.

Since construction began, Morones estimates, the death rate has climbed 15- to 30-fold.   Two immigrants each day are now dying, he said—a total of 10,000 nationwide since construction of the wall began, more than three times as many deaths than occurred in the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

“They are forced to cross in harsher areas,” he said of the ill-fated immigrants.  “It’s inhumane. The U.S. preaches human rights.”

Some die from violence, shot by Border Patrol agents, vigilantes or thieves.  Others are killed in accidents: stumbling in rugged terrain, falling over the wall,  or struck by vehicles.  Many others perish of dehydration and exposure – conditions made worse by the recent sabotage of water stations set out by Border Angeles and other humanitarian groups.

Border AngelsWater Stations Slashed

“Sadly, every one of the more than 40 stations we went to were vandalized and the water emptied out while the containers were slashed by a knife,” Morones wrote in an e-mail in mid-June.  He noted that the sabotage was discovered immediately after June 14—the same weekend Campo Minutemen had announced in a local newspaper plans to hold a reunion.  Morones told East County Magazine (ECM) he views the Minutemen as “a destructive vigilante group.” 

Morones said his group’s activities are legal, done with permission of landowners including various government agencies. While instances of vandalized water stations have occurred in the past, the frequency of such vandalism has increased since the Minuteman Project nationally was established in 2004, Morones said.

Asked if Minutemen were involved in damaging water stations, Campo Minuteman founder Britt Craig, aka Kingfish, told ECM, “I have no personal knowledge about that.”  He denounced as felons those who aid illegal immigrants by knowingly providing sanctuary, jobs, or housing.  But he said, “Putting water out in the desert,  it’s humanitarian…That’s not a felony,” he added, noting that water could assist stranded travels or immigrants returning to Mexico after finding harsh conditions in the desert or mountains.

Asked his view of the humanitarian aid provided by Border Angels, U.S. Border Patrol Agent J. Espinoza at the Campo Border Patrol Station replied, “They’re human beings.  I don’t want to see anybody die.  A lot of them are over their heads.”

Agent E. Rahman concurred. “The  coyotes (human traffickers) will tell them anything. They’ll tell them it’s just a short walk.” 

In fact, the average border crosser takes three days to cross mountains and desert before reaching safer urban areas, according to Morones.  Many have traveled for days or even weeks from southern Mexico or Central America before even arriving at the border, he added.

Agent Espinoza said he believes Minutemen have a right to be on the border “as long as they are law-abiding,” but added that new Border Patrol agents are often surprised to see how crowded the border area is at night with private citizens on patrol, armed with cell phones--and often, more.  

On the road with the Border Angels:  Signs of desperation—and more vandalism

Over the July 4th weekend, as temperatures soared to over 100 degrees, additional sabotage was found at some local water stations.  Campo Minutemen had once again announced a gathering named “Operation Secure American Now!” for the same weekend.

Border AngelsThis reporter accompanied Morones on an Independence Day trip and documented first-hand the damage found.

We pulled off the highway to a dusty ridge overlooking a dry gully, where footprints from dozens, perhaps hundreds of immigrants have left impressions in the shifting sands. Above, towering boulder-strewn mountains served as formidable natural barriers to any who dare to cross.  Dressed in cool, cotton clothing, I found myself drenched in sweat within minutes of stepping out into arid heat in the mid-90s.  I wondered how anyone could survive long without water in such conditions, knowing that temperatures often soar into triple digits here. 

Morones knocked a rock off the top of a container filled with water jugs, careful to look inside before pulling one out.  “I got bit by a spider one time,” he recalled.  “I needed six weeks of antibiotics.”  Another time, a kangaroo mouse jumped out.  Rattlesnakes and scorpions are additional risks in this sometimes-deadly environment.

I asked Morones, who was born in the U.S. but says he’s proud of his Mexican heritage, what compels him to take such risks.  “It’s just doing the right thing,” he replied. “This is about family values. I was raised as a good Catholic, a Christian.”

His website features a Biblical quote: “When I was hungry, who gave me to eat? – When I was thirsty, who gave me to drink?” – Matthew 25:35

He flipped over an empty water jug and scowled, spotting a jagged slash clearly made by a knife.  Every bottle at this station had been sabotaged.  Morones restocked it with smaller single-serving water bottles, which will be more time-consuming for saboteurs to destroy.   

At another station, he detected two pinpricks perhaps made by a snake and poured the remaining water onto a parched plant.  “What if it wasn’t a snake and someone poisoned it?” he asked.  He recalled a TV interview several years ago, when he found a message left at a water station claiming water had been poisoned.  Tests confirmed that the water had not been tainted.  But Morones takes no chances.

We found water bottles intact at the next station, perhaps undetected by would-be vandals.  But at others, where no water remained, belongings apparently left behind by immigrants suggested a trail of torment.

Border AngelsA woman’s high-heeled shoe lay clearly visible on the hot sand.  “Some have crossed in cocktail gowns,” Morones said, adding that women desperate to be reunited with husbands or family members in the U.S. are often uninformed—and intentionally misled by smugglers—about harsh conditions. 

A man’s faded work shirt lay crumpled beneath a tumbleweed.  Why, I asked, would an immigrant poor or desperate enough to risk illegal immigration discard needed clothing?

“When they start getting really dehydrated, they start taking off their clothes and acting kind of crazy,” Morones said softly.  “They get delusional before they die.”

Later, visiting the desolate graveyard in Holtville, I wondered if the woman who lost her shoe or the man who stripped off his shirt in the desert heat were now among the unidentified John and Jane Does buried there.

MinuteMan Project’s turbulent history   

The MinuteMan Project, a national organization that describes itself as a “citizens’ Neighborhood Watch on our border” was founded in 2004 by Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox and named after Minutemen patriots of the Revolutionary War era.  (Simcox left the organization in 2005 and renamed his group the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Inc.)

The Minuteman Project’s website claims it opposes violence and operates “within the law to support enforcement of the law.”  The organization also claims to have no affiliation with nor assistance from racists or white supremacy groups.

The Southern Poverty & Law Center, reports a rise nationally in hate crimes against Latinos, as well as in anti-immigrant hate speech. The Center has listed Minuteman groups (including those in San Diego County) as “extremist nativist” groups on its watch list because such groups target individuals instead of immigration policies.

In August 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported two videos posted at You Tube which claimed to show the murder of an illegal immigrant along the Mexico/California border by two Minutemen.  Shot from the perspective of a gunsight’s crosshairs, the video has a gun shot sound and shows the immigrant falling, as Minutemen voice approval. Then the picture fades out to a grave site.

Authorities later concluded the video was probably faked.  In a news story datelined Campo, Channel 10 news quoted Minuteman Robert “Little Dog” Crooks saying he and his friends made the video as a protest against proposed immigration reforms and because “We’re old and we’re bored.”

The Arizona Republic has reported white supremacist websites linking to Minutemen Project’s homepage with a call to action.  An Aryan Nations site promoted a Minuteman gathering as a “white power” event and contained chat room posts talking about killing Mexicans and sending them home in body bags, according to SourceWatch, a nonpartisan resource center.  Associated Press has published evidence linking Neo-Nazis to the Minutemen Project, with the leadership’s knowledge. (For details, see http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Minuteman_Project.)  The Anti-Defamation League has also cited connections between Neo-Nazis, white supremacist groups and the Minutemen.

Anti-immigration leader Laine Lawless was featured in media reports on the first Minuteman Project campaign in 2005.  He has also patrolled alongside Minutemen in Texas before founding a group called Border Guardians. In 2006, Lawless asked a colleague, Mark Martin, to post information on neo-Nazi bulletin boards offering suggestions for getting rid of Mexican immigrants.  Among the suggestions posted were to “steal the money from any illegal walking into a bank or check cashing place” and “create an anonymous propaganda campaign warning that any further illegal immigrants will be shot, maimed or seriously messed-up upon crossing the border.”

Last year, an Arizona legislator introduced a bill that would define Minutemen’s border patrol activities as domestic terror. The bill’s author, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, has monitored Minutemen activities and called the group “scary,” adding, “Race-based tactics always lead to violence…Remember, the Ku Klux Klan was the first-ever group to patrol the border between the U.S. and Mexico back in the ‘70s,” World Net Daily reported.

President George W. Bush has stated that he opposes “a civilian project to monitor illegal aliens crossing the border,” calling such groups “vigilantes,” the Washington Times reported.  However, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has voiced support for the Minutemen on an L.A. radio show, saying the group has done a “terrific job.”

Duncan D. Hunter, Republican candidate to replace his father, retiring Congressman Duncan Hunter, has accepted the maximum donation allowable by law from the Minuteman’s political action committee (PAC). 

Nationally, Minutemen have faced arrests and been the target of various investigations, though no convictions of violence against immigrants have been made.  In Arizona, Minutemen were implicated in the involuntary detention and humiliation of an undocumented immigrant.  In Virginia, a Minuteman was arrested after a physical altercation with human rights activists; searches of his home and vehicle turned up a Molotov cocktail, a grenade, a stun gun, and 15 guns including a loaded rifle. 

Minuteman groups and immigrant rights groups have leveled accusations of violence against each other, bolstering claims by posting videos on You Tube.   Last year, a Fallbrook woman was convicted of assaulting a videographer linked to Minutemen at a local rally.  Elsewhere, pro-immigrant activists reportedly rocked the car of a Minuteman spokeswoman. 

The Catholic League’s president condemned San Diego Minutemen after a member allegedly sprayed mace in a parishioner’s face  at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Fallbrook, where Minutemen were demonstrating against the church for helping Mexican day laborers. San Diego Minuteman founder Jeff Schwilk had his home raided by police following vandalism at migrant camps.  John Matthew Monti, a San Diego Minuteman, was acquitted in court on charges of assaulting two day laborers.

Border Violence Escalates Locally

Recently, violence along the border in San Diego County is escalating – and some believe vigilante groups are to blame.

On June 11th, three Mexican citizens were shot and injured near Campo on the Mexican side of the border.  According to SignOn San Diego, an e-mail between San Diego Minutemen Founder Jeff Schwiilk and an associate indicated that local Minutemen were in the area when shooting broke out.

On June 13, white supremacist leader Hal Turner, described by some web postings as as “an associate of Simcox and Schwilk,”  took credit for the attacks in a blog post in which he stated, “Got 3 more! At Least Three Shot Trying to Cross U.S.-Mexico Border. Our People are now actively shooting illegal aliens and we will continue to do so….When planning this activity, it was decided that the shootings would take place on the Mexican side of the border since law enforcement in that nation is so ill-equipped, the chance of getting caught is zero.” He asked for anonymous financial contributions to support this effort, of which he claimed to be “proud.”  He added, “We will continue to shoot illegal aliens as they try to cross the border until the stench of blood and rotting corpses discourages further illegal attempts to enter this country.” [Editor’s note: ECM is withholding publication of the website address, since it is clearly soliciting payment to commit murder, a felony violation the U.S.]

Two days later, on June 15th, four migrants were killed with AK-47s in Tecate, just south of the border after refusing to give up belongings to robbers, a Mexican news outlet has reported (http://www.oem.com/mx/elsoldetijuana/notas/n746226.htm.  The murders occurred the same weekend as water stations were slashed and the Campo Minuteman reunion was held at Camp Vigilance in Boulevard, an event confirmed by the Orange County Register and the Backcountry Messenger, leading to suspicions by Latino activists of Minutemen involvement. However, two Mexican men have been arrested for the crimes, El Solde reported, while three other assailants named in the report remain at large.

Campo Minuteman leader believes citizen border patrols are needed to control immigration

The Campo Minuteman’s site states that the group “follows all local, state and federal laws” and that members are to act courteously and not discriminate http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22Campo+minutemen%22 .    

Craig denies participation in any violence instigated by Minutemen.  He said carrying firearms “keeps us from getting mugged” and added that Minutemen have been attacked in the past by protestors. “We have been pretty well demonized, but since April of 2005 I don’t believe anyone has been injured by anyone under the blanket name of Minutemen.” But he acknowledged that with increasing lawlessness in Mexico, “It’s getting rough.”  He said Mexican Army officials recently held a Border Patrol agent at gunpoint and have acted as bodyguards for drug smuggling vehicles.

Asked if he ever fired his weapon while patrolling the border, he replied, “I’ve fired back when two rocks hit my van.  I thought they were gunshots and fired off a couple of round…Thank God, nobody got hurt. They scared me and I scared them.”

He said America was built by “my father and his father and his father,” adding that his family tree includes Native Americans and Scottish ancestors who came here long before Ellis Island was built. Craig has lived in Puerto Rico and Florida, among other places and insists he is not a racist.  “A lot of people are Spanish-Speaking in Florida and they are good citizens, really good Americans,” he said. But in Arizona, where he encountered many illegal immigrants, he recalled, “I became aware of the problems.”

Asked how he became involved with the Minutemen, Craig said he was surfing the Internet when he saw a notice that read, “Bring a firearm and come to the border.” He added, “I’m a Second Amendment activist.  I really believe in legal possession of firearms by the citizenry.” Upon joining the Minutemen’s founding group to patrol the border in Arizona, he recalled, “I did not think that the authorities would allow that to happen, but lo and behold, we were able to do it.”

Unlike Morones, Craig believes a border wall is necessary to slow illegal immigration and that citizen patrols are needed to help secure the border.  “The illegal worker is killing the economy,” he maintained.  “The truth can be looked at from either side. If you are a Republican, it is law breaking on an unimaginable scale.”  Craig, who a veteran who has worked picking crops in the past and other jobs often filled by immigrants, added that Democrats should support restricting immigration because “the border is a picket line and everyone who comes across and works off the books for less than minimum wage is a scab, simple as that…If you don’t have a physical barrier, you will have to have people out here on duty almost linking arms for 2,000 miles to keep people out.”

He supports sanctions against employers to stem the illegal immigration tide by taking away the profit motive.  But he added that he would support a program to fill jobs that can’t be filled with Americans, similar to the Braceros program implemented during World War II to fill factory jobs when soldiers were deployed overseas.  Craig said he thinks employers should be required to pay minimum wage and take responsibility for assuring that employees receive appropriate care – a point on which some immigrant supporters would agree.  He recalls federal indictments against a grower in Florida found guilty of locking up migrants in involuntary servitude.  “It wasn’t only illegal aliens. They were dong just like out of Grapes of Wrath,” the Minuteman leader recalled, likening the migrants’ plight to “slavery.”  He added that the grower was “passing out little pamphlets about great jobs, wonderful opportunities. Then they had the company store for ten dollar cigarettes and three-buck beers.  The workers were in debt at the end of the week and hadn’t paid their bills.”

Craig said the Campo Minuteman group has less than 100 members, though the amount fluctuates. 

Nationally, recent reports indicate enrollment in the Minutemen has declined. In May 2008, the Chicago Daily Herald reported:  “We’ve lost the battle,” said Minuteman project founder Jim Gilchrist. “My intuition tells me…this entire movement will fizzle to nothing by the end of the year.”  The organization has shrink from over 200 chapters nationwide to less than 180.  Infighting among chapters has increased and donations are down, Gilchrist said.  http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=193340&src=4         

Border AngelsBorder Angels Leader Continues Fight

Morones has emerged as a leader not only in humanitarian aid for immigrants, but in the national immigrants rights movement.  He recalled meeting Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy Jr., at a Cesar Chavez celebration.  “She said `You’ve got to be at the front of the line.’”

Morones organized immigrant marches in San Diego and elsewhere, igniting a movement that soon spread nationwide.  He led a convoy of marchers to Washington D.C. to rally for immigrant rights.  

“When we marched in 2006, we had 3.5 million people,” he recalled.  “They [immigration opponents] had 200.  We had 800,000 in Los Angeles. On the same route, they had 100.” 

 He believes public opinion is shifting as a result, citing a Gallup Poll which found that 67% of Americans surveyed support humane immigration reform.

Morones rattles off facts and statistics to counter arguments commonly made by immigration opponents.  Of the 12 million undocumented people in America (according to federal records), half are not from Mexico or Latin America, he said. “They came here legally and stayed when their visa expired. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in that category. We should have sent him back.”

He disputed contentions by anti-immigration groups that immigrants are responsible for crimes and don’t pay taxes.  “Immigrants are ten times more likely not to commit crimes than non-immigrants,” he said.  “Undocumented immigrants contribute $7 billion more than they take from Social Security.”

Asked about arguments that immigrants should apply to come here legally, Morones countered, “They can’t. Poor people can’t qualify.” 

In the past, millions of immigrants came through Ellis Island and were admitted as long as they were not criminals or ill with contagious diseases. No means testing was applied to separate rich from poor.  But the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1921 restricted immigration from China. Later, quotas were put in place to limit the number of immigrants from other regions, such as those fleeing Europe in World War II. 

Today, by contrast, people seeking to enter the U.S from Mexico or Latin America are asked by U.S. authorities if they own property or have children in Mexican schools—steps aimed at assuring immigrants will return home.  Those who don’t own property and are most in need of employment opportunities north of the border are denied legal entry, Morones said.  So they resort to crossing the border illegally—alone, or by paying thousands of dollars to human traffickers.  As construction of the wall proceeds, immigrants are forced east into more dangerous terrain.

Ultimately, Morones hopes to see comprehensive immigration reform that will bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and allow legal opportunities for immigrants to come to America and find work to help support their families.   But for now, Border Angels is focused primarily on saving lives—and providing closure for the families of those who have died.

“We have more than a thousand volunteers.  The water is all donated,” he said.  “We’ve had people of all faiths and we’ve had atheists.”

Morones organizes weekly trips to the desert to replenish water stations with volunteers from Border Angeles, one of several groups participating in such efforts.

He also leads a monthly pilgrimage to the cemetery in Holtville, where he brings flowers and wooden crosses to honor dead border crossers.  “We think about 10,000 have died,” he said.  “We don’t want to forget these people.”

Morones has asked Congressman Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) for federal help to provide grass and headstones—amenities that the privately-owned cemetery already provides in another section for those with means to pay.  But across a chain in the rear of the cemetery, muddy earth collapses above the graves of hundreds of immigrants.              “Congressman Filner was very open,” Morones said. “He really is a Congressman of the people.”

The Border Angels founder also hopes to persuade the federal government to fund DNA testing of bodies to identify the remains of men, women and children buried here.

On America’s Independence Day, Morones spoke to several foreign journalists who accompanied him on his pilgrimage, including a French television reporter.  (No U.S. media was present, except for ECM.)

“There can be nothing more American than helping our fellow man,” Morones declared. “That’s why we’re out here on the Fourth of July.”

Border AngelsHe read aloud the quote inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, long a beacon of hope for immigrants entering New York’s harbor. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” the Border Angeles founder said, his voice trembling with emotion. 

Gazing up, Morones wiped sweat from his brow beneath the blazing summer sun.

“That spirit does not exist anymore,” he concluded. “Now your tired, your poor, those masses yearning to be free are huddled back here--in this gravesite.”

Error message

Support community news in the public interest! As nonprofit news, we rely on donations from the public to fund our reporting -- not special interests. Please donate to sustain East County Magazine's local reporting and/or wildfire alerts at https://www.eastcountymedia.org/donate to help us keep people safe and informed across our region.