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How Are U.S. Immigration Policies Contributing To Border Crosser Deaths?


How are U.S. immigration policies leading to an increase in deaths of people who cross the border illegally? We speak to filmmaker John Carlos Frey, and Dr. John Hunter about the risks undocumented immigrants face as they cross the border in search of opportunity in the United States.

A free screening of "800 Mile Wall" will be held tonight at 6 p.m. at the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center, Celebration Hall on 404 Euclid Avenue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The debate over the deaths of illegal border crossers landed on the doorstep of the San Diego County Water Authority yesterday. A band of protesters displayed 17 body bags, representing the 17 people who have drowned in recent months trying to cross the All-American Canal. The issue of providing more safety to people using the canal as illegal access into the U.S. is part of a larger debate about U.S. immigration policy. Joining us to talk about that policy and what the San Diego County Water Authority has to do with it are my guests, filmmaker and activist John Carlos Frey. His new documentary is called the “800 Mile Wall.” John Carlos, welcome to These Days.

JOHN CARLOS FREY (Documentary Filmmaker): Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. John Hunter is founder of Water Station. It’s a humanitarian organization that provides water for immigrants crossing through the desert. He’s also the brother of former Congressman Duncan Hunter and I would imagine the uncle of our present Congressman Duncan Hunter. Welcome, Dr. Hunter.

DR. JOHN HUNTER (Activist): Hey, thanks a lot.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to start with you, if I may, John Carlos, and talk about the purpose of the press conference you held yesterday in front of the County Water Authority.

FREY: Certainly. We did place 17 mock body bags in front of the San Diego County Water Authority and what we would like to do is we’d like to humanize the issue. I understand that there is a lot of controversy about who is crossing the canal, whether they have papers or they don’t, but we are talking about human beings. And to see 17 body bags with names on them and dates when those bodies were plucked from the canal is a very sobering image. And what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to make San Diego aware of, A, where their drinking water is coming from and, B, what’s happening in their source of water. And the fact that that many people have drowned in, as you said, in a period of months is alarming. Regardless of whether they are here legally or not, regardless of whether they should be crossing the canal or not, they are drowning.

CAVANAUGH: And actually that 17 is a very small fraction of the number of people who have actually lost their lives in that canal in recent years.

FREY: 600, close to 600 documented deaths, drownings, and possibly more. Those are just bodies that have been recovered from the canal and there’s also rumors that there may be many more at the bottom of the canal that have never been recovered. That’s astronomical. That is a number that is reprehensible. We, in this society, value life but on some level we seem to discount migrant life or undocumented immigrants’ lives. And I value the life of an undocumented immigrant just as equal as a U.S. citizen; to me there is no difference. Life is life. And that’s what we were there for, to raise awareness in San Diego County to force the issue, to ask the San Diego County Water Authority to take responsibility. They manage the canal. They built 23 miles of a cemented canal, which is dangerous, it’s lethal. The very same system drowned a U.S. Border Patrol agent about a year ago so it doesn’t really matter whether you have papers or not, if you enter that canal your life is in jeopardy.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine, John Hunter, that a lot of people see this issue as an Imperial County issue because that’s where the All-American Canal is. Why bring the protest here?

DR. HUNTER: Yeah, it used to be an Imperial County issue; it’s now a San Diego issue because as a result of that lining, we get water…

CAVANAUGH: What lining are you talking about?

DR. HUNTER: The lining of the 23 miles of the All-American. It’s roughly half of the All-American’s now been lined. But as a result of that operation we get water which we would not ordinarily get and it basically is bought with the bodies and lives of these poor people. And by – I want to make one simple point here, this is not a left versus right confrontation or Mexico versus U.S., okay. We’re losing American citizens at All-American as well. And as John Carlos knows, I’m a rightwing guy, okay. I went to Iraq three times to stick armor on trucks and weapon mounts and stuff and my – as you know, I have an illustrious nephew, a great nephew, who’s in Iraq right now, Sam, not Duncan D. Duncan D. was there twice. So we – I come from a – the rightwing of the spectrum but we have to acknowledge that these are people, no matter what party we’re in. This is not a partisan issue. My brother Dunc actually supports this issue and wrote a really nice letter, as well as Bob Filner, so this is not partisan one bit. This is very simple: 600 people died in this mass grave; let’s stop it happening.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of safety measures would you like to see installed at the All-American Canal?

DR. HUNTER: The standard ones. This is – All we’re asking is this to be treated fairly. If you go to the Edmund G. Brown Canal up in the Bay area, it’s very similar. When it goes through a urban area, you know what they do? They put buoys in, they put little fences in the areas where people could ordinarily climb in so they fence it to keep people out of the canal, and they put climb-outs at the buoys. That’s all they do, and that stops the drownings, and that’s all we’re asking for here. We’re asking for the same treatment for these people as we are for anywhere else in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Now, John Carlos, your documentary, the “800 Mile Wall,” features this controversy about the All-American Canal but it also takes on the wider subject of where migrants are being channeled—I think the term in the documentary is funneled—because of the wall, the border wall, into very, very dangerous terrain and the spike of migrant deaths that has resulted from that.

FREY: We have a border policy in place which basically says let’s make this journey for migrants, for people who are trying to cross into the United States illegally, let’s make this journey as difficult as possible for two reasons. One, so that they maybe wouldn’t cross. If you have to cross the desert to the mountains, there may be a lethal canal, you’re going to think twice about it. Secondarily, maybe this information will get back to pueblos and towns in Mexico and Central America and family members will tell each other don’t try this. I’ve tried it, this is horrible, you’re not going to make it. None of that has happened. The policy basically is trying to make the journey as difficult as possible. The only thing that is happening is that people are dying in mass number. The same amount of undocumented immigrants are crossing that border year after year after year. We’ve never spent as much money on the border as we do now. We’ve never had as much fencing as we do now yet the same amount of people are coming across but the death toll is rising. I believe that the policy is inhumane. I believe that there’s a better approach. Find a way to get these people who are only looking for a job a legal means to cross the border and work.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, you contrast what’s happening here in the United States with the way Canada actually imports workers from Mexico to help because they have a worker shortage in their fields.

FREY: It is undeniable in the United States that at least if we take a look at the example of agriculture in the United States, the vast majority of labor in our fields picking our crops are here undocumented. Some of the numbers are anywhere from 70 to 95% of the labor in our fields, especially in California, is undocumented. In Canada, they actually have partnered with the Mexican government. They actually fly agricultural labor on airplanes, put them up in homes, give them healthcare, give them a fair wage, and when they’re done with the harvest, fly them back home. What a humane system. We import labor as well but we ask them to go through an obstacle course, through deserts and mountains and canals. And if you can make it, we’re going to give you a job. If you lose your life, we’ll just ship your body back home.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with John Carlos Frey and Dr. John Hunter. We’re talking about a protest that happened this week in front of the San Diego County Water Authority about these – the unsafe conditions at the All-American Canal and the deaths of migrants that have resulted from those unsafe conditions. And, Dr. Hunter, I have to say, you know, many would point to—you call yourself a rightwing guy—many would point to the rightwing…

DR. HUNTER: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …as sort of initiating the policies that John Carlos has just told us about.

DR. HUNTER: Certainly. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And that many people would say, look, you know, this is illegal to come into the country this way. There are a lot of people who wait a long time to enter this country legally and so, you know, perhaps it should be risky to enter a country in an illegal fashion.

DR. HUNTER: Well, actually, I don’t believe in people crossing illegally, okay, I actually believe in the sovereign borders of any country. They’re entitled to have their borders and control the borders, no doubt about it. But if you put yourself in the shoes of some poor person down in Mexico whose kids are starving and can’t get medical help, you would be a coward not to come north. You’d be a coward not to come north. And I’ll quote a very – sort of a funny quote here. You remember Duke Cunningham, who’s now in prison, of course. I knew Duke. Duke wasn’t all bad. Duke is now in prison for basically taking bribes but he had some really interesting quotes. He said he, himself, would go north in the same situation. You know, everyone has good and bad, right?


DR. HUNTER: And so that was a Duke quote and I know no one else would be brave enough to quote Duke but I actually liked him except for his horrible flaws of taking bribes. So you’d be really not taking care of your own family if they’re starving by not coming to a place where you can support them, in my opinion. Now as an American, I turn around and I say, okay, they shouldn’t be doing this because they haven’t done this and that. But there’s a bigger picture here and, you know, even General Grant would say, you know, there’s the law and then there’s what’s right. And you tend to – you should follow what’s right.

CAVANAUGH: And John Carlos.

FREY: Yeah, here’s the sort of the facts on the ground situation. We grant 65,000 agricultural visas to Mexico every year so we allow 65,000 workers to come and work in our fields every year, yet the estimate of how many undocumented workers are in our fields is close to 3 million. So you do the math. 65,000 legal visas to get into the United States, and we have invited 3 million more people to come here. If I can’t feed my family and I have an invitation to work in the fields in the United States, I’m going to come and I’m going to find any means. I have met these people. I know them personally. I have interviewed them, I have walked the deserts with them, I have seen their corpses on the desert floor. These are not criminals, these are not drug dealers, these are not people who are coming for any other reason but they have an invitation. They have a ticket to work and they’re going to use that ticket to get across the border at any cost, at any means. A deterrence policy is not working.

CAVANAUGH: Now speaking of the idea of seeing people’s bodies on the desert floor and at the All-American Canal, John Carlos, you, in this documentary, include some really sort of disturbing images, graphic images of dead people, of dead people who’ve tried to come into this country and have died in the desert or have drowned. Why did you decide to include those images?

FREY: I don’t think that the deaths for most Americans, myself included, are real. We may hear about deaths, we may not hear about them. Very few newspapers actually publish them and if they do publish them it’s just that a body was found. I just read in Texas, a truck went over a ledge and 17 people were in a semi-truck. The newspaper didn’t publish anybody’s name. They didn’t say where these people were from, they didn’t say why they were in the United States in the first place. We do not humanize these deaths. We do not actually get to feel or mourn the loss. If there’s a U.S. citizen who drowns in that canal or gets hit by a car or dies in some inhumane manner, we’re at least allowed to feel for these people. And I thought by humanizing the issue, by showing people what it’s like to lose your life in the desert—it’s probably one of the most heinous ways to lose your life. Not only that, the corpse is decimated afterwards. Wild animals, insects, the heat itself, what it does to it, the sand, this is a horrific way of dying and this is happening right in our own backyard. And I think that the only way that we’re going to be empowered to do something about it is if we raise the consciousness to a level where we’re educated enough to actually know what to do.

CAVANAUGH: Well, John Hunter, it’s hard to raise the consciousness of a society when you have members of that society trying to make political capital over demonizing illegal border crossers.

DR. HUNTER: You’re totally correct. And I think demonizing’s the right word to use. And, you know, it’s sort of – it’s stark to me that all these heinous crimes are continuing, these deaths are continuing. And I just want to bounce back to what John’s doing. You know, John is actually putting a face on this. He’s putting two faces, one is the face of the families that lose their loved ones and they’re totally destroyed. I’ve met them, these families, they’re destroyed forever. The second face he’s putting on is he’s showing the corpses and that’s not without precedent. Back in the second war, which my father was a Marine and fought in the Philippines but in Germany we went back and we took Buchenwald, we took Auschwitz, we took these concentration camps back and what Dwight Eisenhower made the townspeople do was he made the townspeople, the guys in the lederhosen and the little matrons that were dancing around and stuff, they knew the Jews were being killed in mass quantities. He made them go and tour Auschwitz, he made them go through and see the stacked corpses, nude corpses of these women and children, and look at them. He forced them to look at them. And so those are the two faces you’ve got to put on this to make it real. As John says, you’ve got to raise consciousness so you need to put the face of the families that have been destroyed and you’ve got to show the deadly results. And I think John’s doing the right thing. That’s what Eisenhower did. You’ve got to make it real.

CAVANAUGH: Now you and John Carlos actually went into the All-American Canal, am I right about that? And put up a safety buoy.

FREY: You’re asking us to incriminate ourselves.

DR. HUNTER: No, there were lots of witnesses. That is correct. And, by the way, the water was somewhat chilly.

CAVANAUGH: And what are – what’s the result of that? Are you up on charges for doing that?

FREY: We are up on charges. About 10 days ago John Hunter and myself entered the canal with a system of buoys, which we are asking the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District to install. John spent his own money, a couple of thousand dollars, to make the canal safe. One buoy line straight across. It took us seven minutes to install this line and we were cited for entering the canals, so we have a court date December 29th in El Centro for trying to make the canal safe basically. What we were trying to do is just prove how simple the measure is that we’re asking for, we’re not asking for the moon here, and how quickly it can be installed. 15 months have gone by since the San Diego County Water Authority agreed to work with the Imperial Irrigation District to make the canal safe. 15 months have gone by and 17 more people have drowned. The sense of urgency is appalling. We took measures into our own hands just to prove how quickly we could do this.

CAVANAUGH: And John Hunter, in addition to doing that, jumping into that very chilly canal to do that, you also, as I say, had an organization called Water Station. Tell us a little bit about that.

DR. HUNTER: Yeah, in 2000 I founded Water Station. And the reason for that was no one was doing anything about the deaths in the desert. You know, I used to, back in the late ‘90s, I saw in the newspaper all these horrible deaths that were occurring and it was an unforeseen consequence of putting the fence along the border. Now people talked about the fence, and here’s my thought on the fence briefly. The fence stopped a lot of deaths in the San Diego sector. There were 10 homicides a year and many, many, many rapes. Those flatlined, okay? That’s true. And the – but the inadvertent consequence was the people that started dying in the outlying areas, east county and Arizona just in horrific numbers. I’m sure no one intended that to happen, okay, I believe that because I know a lot of the people involved in that. They didn’t intend it to happen. But what happens is when you invent something and I – by the way, I invent things for a living, you always have bugs. Everytime you invent something, it never works exactly like you’d like it to, so what you do is you do what’s called ‘man up’, in quotes. You solve the bugs. You don’t say, well, I forgot the lefthanded gizmo that cuts the little kid’s finger, I got to fix that gizmo. You go fix the gizmo. In this case, fixing the gizmo means you’ve got to put – install a worker program because right now all we’re doing is bandaid fixes. Right now, John and I are doing bandaid fixes. You know, putting the buoys across it – of course that buoy system was taken down the next day but the all – I put out – we put 150 stations in the desert year after year and that saves a few people’s lives every year. But those are bandaid fixes. So we need a systemic fix here which is to have a worker program which is safe and sane.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead, John Carlos.

FREY: John Hunter’s work in the desert definitely saves lives but if you go along the southwest border along the deserts, John’s not the only person doing it. In Arizona they’re doing the same thing, water stations, humanitarian aid workers, people actually out in the field looking for migrants who are in distress. There are organizations dedicated to searching for people who are missing. And here’s the kicker: There was a spike in migrant deaths last year. All of this humanitarian effort, all of these people on the ground trying to help, trying to stem the death toll, and the death toll rose. It’s getting harder to cross the border, people are having to cross more treacherous terrain, they’re having to walk longer out in those conditions, and more people are continuing to die. John’s right. This is a bad bandaid that we have on this issue.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s also your contention that the reason that the All-American Canal remains unfenced is because the canal itself is being used as a deterrent from people, you know – to stop people from entering the United States.

FREY: Well, if you look at some of the comments that were printed yesterday from the San Diego County Water Authority, they admit that a border fence is not going to keep people from getting into the canal. They actually said if somebody wants to cross that canal, they’re going to, a border fence is not going to them. What John and I are advocating for is not a border fence, which actually does exist along that area, is to fence the canal itself. Make the canal inaccessible. Make it so that nobody could get in at all. Or if they do get in, make it in such a way that they could actually get back out.

CAVANAUGH: Now we have another guest joining us now. Dennis Cushman is actually here at the KPBS Studios for another segment we’re doing next hour but he is the assistant general manger of the San Diego County Water Authority, so we wanted to get his input on what’s been talked about in this segment, in this half hour. Dennis, are you there?

DENNIS CUSHMAN (Assistant General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority): Yes.

CAVANAUGH: I’d like to get your reaction to what you’ve heard.

CUSHMAN: Well, I wasn’t able to listen to the whole segment but, you know, first and foremost, the Water Authority supports the same outcome that your guests do this morning, which is to prevent deaths in the All-American Canal. I do want to clarify a couple of important points. One, I think a comment was made early in the show that the Water Authority manages the All-American Canal, and that’s just not true. The All-American Canal, it’s 82 miles long, it’s managed by the Imperial Irrigation District. It’s owned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. The Water Authority’s involvement is to fund the 23 miles of the canal that were lined over the last several years. That’s the Water Authority’s involvement. And for that, we get water supply further up the river from the conserved water from the Canal Lining Project. So just a couple of points. But I also want to point out that the Water Authority’s been actively engaged in partnership with the Imperial Irrigation District, with the Bureau of Reclamation, with other entities and stakeholder groups in Imperial Valley to try to improve canal safety and prevent further loss of life. And a couple of the steps that we’re taking, buoy lines were mentioned. We’re going to be deploying additional buoy lines, painting. There are 493 ladders, climb-out ladders, throughout the 23 miles, about one every 250 feet of the lined canal for humans to climb out if they get into the canal. But our first and major focus is to prevent people from getting in the canal in the first place. It is cold, as was mentioned by Dr. Hunter. It can run as cold as 55 degrees. It is deep, 18 feet deep. Nobody’s feet are going to touch the bottom of that canal. And it’s swift. It may look tranquil if you’re standing beside it but it’s not and those are very dangerous – it’s not – The canal has over 70 years of history, the many unfortunate deaths that were cited by your guests have occurred over seven decades. It has never been safe for human crossing.

FREY: So why not make it safe?

CUSHMAN: We’re working to make it safer. When you gentlemen jumped into the canal, you were wearing wetsuits and swim fins and you’re probably good swimmers. That’s not the case, I think you would admit, with the vast majority of the people who attempt to cross the canal. It’s not intended for human crossing.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Mr. Cushman, if I could just ask, is this – do you see this making that canal safer a part of the San Diego County Water Authority’s mandate?

CUSHMAN: Yes, and it’s something that we’re working on. We have a shared responsibility along with the Imperial Irrigation District to work together, and with all interested parties, to try to make the chances of survival for people who get into the canal…

CAVANAUGH: And when will that happen?

CUSHMAN: Well, first, we’ve launched, in cooperation with the Consulate of Mexico, in Calexico and Mexicali, a major outreach campaign on both sides of the border with very vivid and graphic messages about the dangers of getting into the canal. We believe those have been helpful and productive. We are going to be testing a series of additional safety measures here and deploying those in the next several weeks, including painting the ladders that we mentioned in glow-in-the-dark paint because some of the people enter, or most of them enter, in the night, putting additional buoy lines in the canal that lead to those ladders in an effort to improve the situation out there.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis Cushman, San Diego County Water Authority assistant general manager, thank you. And we will welcome you back next hour. Thanks for joining us.

CUSHMAN: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’d like to get a brief reaction from both of you.

FREY: Sure. Sorry, John. There’s a couple of things. If the public service announcement, the posters, the flyers and the announcements on radio and television are effective, I would ask your guest why have 17 more people drowned in the canal. I don’t think that a poster is going to get somebody out of the canal. The federal government instituted what was called a Border Safety Initiative three years ago warning migrants of the dangers of crossing the deserts and the mountains. It was a complete failure. The federal government abandoned that project. This is not going to save one life. People who are coming across the canal are desperate. They’re not coming across the canal because there’s a Disneyland just 90 miles away, they’re coming across because they’re desperate. And a radio announcement is not going to keep people out. The safety features that they’re testing, they’re adding six buoys in a 23 mile canal. That’s one safety buoy every five or six miles, and the buoys are designed in such a way to force a migrant, if they try to use them, to swim against the current. They’re angled.

CAVANAUGH: I have to give Dr. Hunter a brief final word.

DR. HUNTER: Yeah, yeah, you bet. No, I think these efforts they’re talking about are pathetic. Basically, if you’re talking about the day-in-the-glow paint (sic) maybe this – maybe Mr. Cushman does not understand this. Day-in-the-glow paint (sic) lasts 20 minutes after sunset, okay, so those are pathetic measures. And basically I see the same thing, the same sort of yapping, talking good but doing nothing that I saw back in the day before I started Water Station.

CAVANAUGH: We’ve got to end it there. I want to thank you both, in fact, all of you for speaking with us today. And I want everyone to know a free screening of "800 Mile Wall" will be held tonight at six at the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center, Celebration Hall, 404 Euclid Avenue. For more information, you can go to Dr. John Hunter and John Carlos Frey, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FREY: Thank you.

DR. HUNTER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Stay with us for the second hour of These Days coming up in just a few minutes.

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