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Officials doing little as more migrants drown in Imperial County canal

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.

Inflatable tubes and life rafts used by migrants who traverse the All-American Canal after illegally crossing into the United States.
Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Inflatable tubes and life rafts used by migrants who traverse the All-American Canal after illegally crossing into the United States. Imperial County, Calif. Jan. 24, 2022.

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.’”

Forty-seven migrants have drowned since 2015 while trying to swim across the All-American Canal in Imperial County.
Matthew Bowler
Forty-seven migrants have drowned since 2015 while trying to swim across the All-American Canal in Imperial County.

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.”

Officials doing little as more migrants drown in Imperial County canal

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