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Imperial Valley Crash Victim's Stories Show Why People Are Migrating To United States

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In the early morning of March 2nd, an SUV packed with 25 people was hit by a big rig when the driver of the SUV ran a stop sign. The crash in Imperial Valley is one of the deadliest border-related crashes in recent decades.

Speaker 1: 00:00 In the early morning of March 2nd and SUV packed with 25 people was hit by a big rig. When the driver of the SUV ran a stop sign. The crash in Imperial Valley is one of the deadliest border related crashes. In recent decades. Those in the SUV paid a smuggler to help them cross into the United States. This suspected smuggler was charged with organizing a human smuggling attempt that caused serious injury. This tragedy highlights a humanitarian crisis at the Southern border. Joining me is New York times, reporter Miriam Jordan, who reports on the impact of immigration on the society, culture and economy of the United States. She's based in Los Angeles. Miriam. Welcome.

Speaker 2: 00:42 Thank you. Happy to be here. So

Speaker 1: 00:44 In your piece, you say the 13 people who died in the crash are a portrait of the migration explosion. The U S government is struggling to address how do the backstories of those who died and survive this crash? Give us a look into why we're seeing this increase.

Speaker 2: 01:01 Well, I think that the main driving factor of this migration currently is the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic on countries, in the developing world. And in particular, the piece sheds light on the fact that we have growing numbers of single Mexican adults, both men and women coming to the United States after reframing from doing so for many years, because the Mexican economy has been badly battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaker 1: 01:36 And how does this surge in migration compared to previous surge, as we've seen,

Speaker 2: 01:41 It's a surge that we have not seen in about 15 years. The likes of it's a surge, that's more diverse than some of the surges in, you know, the past year say in the early two thousands, but it's composed of women and children, single adults and unaccompanied minors. And if there was one thing that they all have in common is that they are seeking a better life in the United States.

Speaker 1: 02:08 How did you go about finding the backstories of those in the SUV for this piece you wrote?

Speaker 2: 02:14 So, um, the story is based on interviews with, you know, survivors and family members, who I was able to track down with the assistance of, uh, Mexican consular officials, as well as, uh, officials from the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles. I interviewed Asians with the California highway patrol, the U S border patrol and Homeland security investigations. And I, you know, reviewed police reports and a federal complaint that was recently filed against the man accused of organizing this trip. I eat the coyote.

Speaker 1: 02:49 Let's talk about some of those people who were being smuggled into the U S when the SUV crashed one of the survivors, Zephyr Rena Mendoza, who was badly injured in the crash. Why did she say she decided to make the often dangerous Trek to the U S

Speaker 2: 03:05 Well, you know, Zephyr Rina lives in a very poor region of, of Mexico called Guerrero, a single mom, um, trying to eke out an existence, um, you know, doing odd jobs, but even somebody like her in the informal economy wasn't making ends meet. So she decided to try to make her way to the strawberry fields of California, where she had family already working.

Speaker 1: 03:36 You said Mendoza was making very little money. How did she, and how do others pay smugglers? The high cost of getting them into the U S

Speaker 2: 03:45 Um, what I learned from Ziff Marina is that some of these coyotes even offer installment plans for paying the debt that these people incur. I mean, obviously she did not have $9,000 on her. So what she agreed was that once she began working, she would pay, you know, by the month, whatever she could toward what she owed. Now, it's quite possible that later she would get threatened or family members in the United States could receive threats from the coyote saying, you know, we want you to pay up or else, but that was the arrangement that she had struck.

Speaker 1: 04:23 Mm. And another one of the people you profile is Yesenia Melinda eras, who died in the crash. Tell me a bit about her and why she decided to make the journey,

Speaker 2: 04:32 Right? So she's an example of a central American fleeing gang violence that has really engulfed much of, uh, central America in the last, you know, decade or so. Uh, she was receiving threats on her phone, according to her uncle who lives in California felt, you know, that the threads were menacing and, um, life-threatening enough that she should leave immediately. And so she and her mother embarked on this journey,

Speaker 1: 05:05 Driver of the SUV also died in the crash, his backstory lines up with why it's believed he was driving. Tell me about that.

Speaker 2: 05:13 Right? So his wife, who I interviewed in Mexicali, the city where the SUV left from told me that he had less work as a result of the pandemic. He worked in a bakery and Anna Michaela Dora one of those factories along the border that churns out electronics and other products for the American market in any event driver had less work as a result of the pandemic was desperate to make money. Um, he had had this idea to start driving for Uber. However, Uber requires that cars be of a certain standard. If he went to the United States, he felt that he would quickly earn the money that he needed to buy a car and, you know, start driving in his home country.

Speaker 1: 06:08 18 people died in the crash. 12 survived, will the survivors stay in the United States.

Speaker 2: 06:14 There is a strong chance that they will be able to stay in the United States because they could avail of visas that are made available to witnesses of crimes. They obviously have insight information about how this human smuggling operation was organized, how much, you know, they had to pay how many people might've been involved in, ferrying them across, stashing them in a remote location or a staging area before they went across, et cetera. So it's possible that cooperating would enable them to remain in the United States. Long-term but that's, you know, not a hundred percent certain.

Speaker 1: 07:04 I've been speaking to New York times, reporter Miriam, Jordan, Miriam. Thank you very much for joining us.

Speaker 2: 07:10 You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.