Officials doing little as more migrants drown in Imperial County canal
Speaker 1: (00:00)
2021 was the deadliest year on record for migrants crossing the border. That's according to customs and border protection in Imperial county migrants continue to drown in the all American canal. K PBS border reporter, Gustavo Salise explains why there's been more drownings and who is trying to do something about it.
Speaker 2: (00:20)
Everything John Hunter thought he knew about illegal immigration changed. When he went on a nighttime ride, along with border patrol agents in 2000, they used night vision goggles to spot a group of migrants on the us side of the border. Hunter still remembers their rush. When they moved in on the group,
Speaker 3: (00:35)
We went down and busted him, turned out there were six little ladies sitting there on the ground and they had their purse. I'm going, I don't feel like such a stud here I am busting. Someone looks like my, my mother or my grandmother or my sister's cook. It's sort of, it's not like a manly thing to do. You know,
Speaker 2: (00:52)
Hunter is a staunch Republican, the brother and uncle former San Diego, Congressman Duncan, hunter, senior and junior, until that night, his image of people across illegally were bad ombres and macho mus as he calls them. But that's not what he saw. He saw poor people trying to survive women and children fleeing violence. Soon after he began leaving water bottles along the borders, rugged mountains in Treacher desert. Then he focused his attention on the all American canal and Imperial county, where more than 550 have drown to death while trying cross the border. Since that leave the 1990s, he looked into who was drowning and found the same thing.
Speaker 3: (01:29)
These are just ordinary people that drown crossing. These are not the cartels. These are not the guys you read about with the, you know, the macho mu cha Chos. These are not, they're just ordinary people that can't make a living. They're trying to survive.
Speaker 2: (01:41)
The all American cannot Alice an 82 mile waterway that runs along the us border. As it carries water from the Colorado river to Southern California, it's managed by the Imperial irrigation district. The canal is notoriously deadly for migrants trying to cross the border illegally is 200 feet wide and about 20 feet deep in some areas, CBP agent John Mendoza explains why the canals deceptively dangerous. A a lot of the
Speaker 4: (02:03)
Migrants don't know the threats that the water has, what may appear to be calm on the top may not be so on the bottom. There's a lot of strong currents and under toes that can take someone very easily underneath, um,
Speaker 2: (02:14)
The water in 2010, John and his wife, Laura led efforts to install 1000 safety buoys and ladders along the canal. It was an uphill battle. Some irrigation district board members and staff thought the safety measures would make it too easy for people to cross the border illegally, former irrigation district board member, Michael Abody supported Hunter's proposals, but he faced pushback from his own agency. There
Speaker 5: (02:35)
Were some arrogance on some of this, uh, staff that say, what are you, what are you gonna do? Just build a bridge so they can come across and said, I'm asking to build a bridge, but it would definitely wasn't meant to be the end of the road for a lot of people.
Speaker 2: (02:48)
But then 60 minutes came to town and did an expose on the canal diffs. After that the irrigation district agreed to install 103 buoy along the canal, one every half mile on the east side and one every mile on the west side. And the buoys made a difference. The number of drownings decreased border patrol agents say the buoys actually helped them rescue migrants in the canal. If we have
Speaker 4: (03:07)
To apprehend a group or we have to rescue a group of individuals that may be struggling, the water, we can use the buoy lines, uh, as a
Speaker 2: (03:13)
Reference, the irrigation district has not increased the number of safety buoys along the canal since 2010. And they shows that drowning deaths are increasing, particularly along the Western part of the canal that has fewer buoy lines, irrigation district officials declined a KPBS interview request. A spokesperson says the agency has installed 40 warning signs along the canal in recent years. This is in addition to more than 1300 signs that had already been installed. Still 47 migrants have in the canal since 20 15, 14 of them last year, hunter says it's time to add more buoys, right?
Speaker 3: (03:44)
The data indicates that they're, they're rounding close to Mexico or close to winter Haven where there aren't the buoys. And so no, that is it's pretty common sense, right? These are common sense things. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to make an estimate that it'll work a
Speaker 2: (03:57)
Body agrees with hunter, but he does not think the current irrigation board will prioritize this issue. It's not
Speaker 5: (04:02)
Acceptable. I mean, I think we can do better. I wish they do better. I mean, if they don't like the buoy system, I say, well, try something else, but try something. They're not trying anything. And that's what flush straight in today. Gustavo
Speaker 2: (04:14)
Salli K PBS news.
John Hunter is a rock-ribbed Republican who thinks most humanitarians are “soft people” and doesn’t consider himself an “open borders guy.” But the brother of long-time East San Diego County Congressman Duncan Hunter Sr., is staunchly pro-life, as is his wife Laura Hunter.
“Since we’re pro-life, Laura and I don’t believe in killing babies, old people or people who are coming from poverty,” he said.
That includes undocumented immigrants who make desperate attempts to cross the U.S./Mexico border. The couple has spent decades trying to prevent migrant deaths.
They started by leaving water bottles along the deserts and mountains. Then they began lobbying for safety buoys along the All-American Canal in Imperial County – a body of water that has claimed the lives of more than 600 people since being completed in 1942.
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The first deaths were locals who fell into the canal. But since the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of deaths — more than 90% — have been migrants trying to swim across the canal.
The death toll has fluctuated through the decades, but it’s steadily gone up in recent years. Records from the Imperial County Coroner show 47 deaths in the last six years, and the Imperial County Coroner’s Office documented 14 in 2021 — the highest total since 2015.
The 82-mile canal runs along the southern border carrying water from the Colorado River to Southern California.
It widens to as much as 200-feet across and is 20-feet deep in many spots. The eastern side is lined with a steep layer of concrete that is nearly impossible to climb out of.
Its strong currents drag people toward one of eight hydroelectric plants along the canal that feature big waterfalls - some dropping as much as 49 feet.
A significant portion of the canal flows between the border wall and the I-8 Highway. Migrants usually climb over the fence, swim across the canal and meet their pickup driver at the highway.
The majority of the deaths happen on the western portion of the canal, where there are fewer buoys.
This is deeply frustrating to the Hunters and other advocates who spent most of the 2000s trying to convince the Imperial Irrigation District, a public agency that oversees the canal, to install the safety buoys.
Although the canal is owned by the federal government, the Imperial Irrigation District is responsible for maintenance and operation.
Initially, the agency not only refused to install buoys, but also ladders, and other safety measures. They argued that it would encourage more illegal migration.
It wasn’t until the Hunters got the attention of the television news program 60 Minutes and shined a national spotlight on the issue that irrigation district board members changed their minds.
That 2010 piece quoted Stella Mendoza, then an irrigation district board member, sarcastically saying: “Is the [irrigation district] supposed to save every individual that jumps into the canal? Is that, is that my role as a director?”
The irrigation district installed 103 safety buoys later that year.
“What my wife and I recognize is that public humiliation is a really tremendous tool,” Hunter said.
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The buoys helped reduce drownings. Also, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents say the buoys help them rescue migrants caught in the canal’s strong currents. But the larger promises weren’t kept, no additional buoys have been installed since 2010. And the death counts keep creeping up.
Highest death toll ever
Nationwide, roughly 550 migrants died crossing the border illegally in fiscal year 2021. That was the highest death total on record, according to CBP records.
Experts say part of the rising death toll is Title 42 — a Trump-era public health order that the Biden Administration has kept in place.
Under Title 42, border patrol officials can turn asylum seekers away from the border without due process. Previously, migrants who expressed fear of going back to their country of origin were given an interview and a chance to see an immigration judge.
The policy creates a “revolving door” of people who were turned away from the border only to turn around and try to cross again.
“They are often risking their lives on each successive attempt, so deaths inevitably increase,” said Wayne Cornelius, who founded the Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program and has studied immigration policies since the 1970s.
The federal government’s approach to immigration enforcement is designed to produce more deaths because it relies on deterrence, Cornelius said.
In theory, deterrence works by making it so difficult to cross the border illegally that no one will want to try. But in practice, it ignores why the migrants flee in the first place and fails to create viable alternatives.
“The strategy is failing because the economic and violence-related push factors in migrants’ countries of origin have never weakened, the demand for labor in the U.S. is too strong and the opportunities to enter the U.S. legally are too limited,” Cornelius said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have doubled down on this deterrence strategy for decades, he added.
President Bill Clinton militarized the border with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which funded 700 miles of fencing along the border — Senate Democrats Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all voted in favor of the bill at the time.
Then came Donald Trump, who made border security the centerpiece of his presidency.
Ironically, some of San Diego’s most vocal and loyal supporters of the same policies that drive migrants to swim across the All-American Canal are the members of Congress in Hunter’s family. Both Duncan Hunter Sr. and his son, Duncan Hunter Jr., were hardliners on immigration while in office.
No new buoys
Despite the recent increase in drowning deaths, there has been no effort to install more buoys along the canal.
The Imperial Irrigation District declined to be interviewed about this topic. A spokesperson told KPBS news that the district installed 105 buoy lines in 2010, has more than 1,300 warning signs and recently installed another 40 signs.
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Former irrigation district board member, Michael Abatti, said the agency is unlikely to act unless there is public outcry.
Like Hunter, Abatti doesn’t put himself in the open borders camp, but wants to stop needless deaths.
“Listen, we’re going to arrest you when you come across the border,” he said. “You’re going to get arrested, you’re going to get processed, that’s our laws. Every country has those set of laws. But I don’t want them to lose their life trying.”
He was on the board when the Hunters lobbied for safety buoys in the late 2000s and remembers getting pushback from his own staff at the irrigation district.
“I was very disappointed with some of the answers I got from staff,” he said. “It was like, ‘how dare board members ask us to do this and inconvenience us when we got so much to do already.’”
He believes more should have been done in recent years.
“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “I think we can do better. I wish they’d do better. If you don’t like the buoy system, try something else. Try something. They are not trying anything and that is what’s frustrating today.
Without more public pressure, Abatti and Hunter expect the death toll to continue rising.
“These are just ordinary people drowning,” Hunter said. “These are not the cartels. These are not the guys you read about — the macho muchachos. These are just ordinary people who can’t make a living and are trying to survive.”
Imperial County residents don’t really talk about the drowning deaths, Abatti said. They’ve become normal – something that just happens every year.
“If you stop talking about it, it becomes normal,” he said. “There is no more problem. That’s one way to get a problem to go away.”
The Hunters still run a water drop organization in San Diego. But they’ve stopped advocating in Imperial County. Instead, Their newest project is an effort to install cell phone towers in remote parts of the Arizona desert so stranded migrants can find their way to safety.
And without change to immigration enforcement at the federal level, Cornelius expects to see more death along the border for the foreseeable future.
“These are pointless deaths because they don’t accomplish anything in terms of discouraging other migrants from attempting to come to the border and trying their luck,” he said. “The public is generally unaware that they are occurring unless there is some sort of mass fatality.”