Startling Number of Border Deaths in Arizona

Wednesday, June 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Todd Scambati goes into the Arizona desert almost every day to save strangers — even if those strangers don't want to be saved by Todd Scambati.

As a U.S. Border Patrol rescue agent, Scambati has found dozens of undocumented immigrants struggling in triple-digit temperatures, many of them exhausted and waiting for death.

Sometimes, he even comes across former strangers.

``We went out on a rescue one day and found people, and they were in really bad shape,'' he said. ``Four days later, the same group was caught again, coming back across.''

At least 66 illegal immigrants have died this year making their way through Arizona, the most the Border Patrol has ever recorded in the state. Last year, 40 people died crossing Arizona's border.

The illicit border traffic has sparked tensions between immigrants and residents, particularly after reports of armed ranchers detaining suspected illegals in southeastern Arizona.

``Both sides are afraid. The residents are afraid of the migrants and the migrants are afraid of the residents,'' said Sally Holcomb of Bisbee, a restaurateur and mental health program manager who went to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue with lawmakers.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever and David Aguilar, the Border Patrol's top official in the Tuscon regional office, told Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., the situation has been overblown.

``The characterization of conflict along the border as rancher vigilantism is a real unfortunate and inaccurate characterization of those conflicts,'' Dever said Tuesday. ``We have had some extremely isolated incidents that have led to that characterization.''

There have been 32 incidents in the past eight months where citizens have detained suspected illegal immigrants, Aguilar said. The Border Patrol has increased horseback patrols, helping ease tensions, he said.

However, Kyl said he was seeking congressional approval for $5 million in emergency funding for Arizona and additional funding to hire 1,000 new border patrol agents, though the House has approved only 430.

Analysts say increased Border Patrol crackdowns in California and Texas have driven more immigrants to Arizona. In particular, Operation Gatekeeper, which more than doubled the number of agents in San Diego County, has pushed illegal traffic to once little-used ports of entry.

So far, 37 immigrants have died this year of heat exposure between Yuma and Tucson, which covers most of the state's border with Mexico. Others died of drowning, exposure to the cold and traffic accidents.

Agents in the Tucson sector have rescued 830 others, said agency spokesman Rob Daniels. People needing medical attention when found are classified as rescued.

The Border Patrol is responding by increasing overall rescue training for its agents, including advanced emergency first aid. The Mexican government is doubling the size of a task force patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border.

Both U.S. and Mexican officials also are airing public service announcements on both sides of the border warning people of the desert's dangers.

Lawyers for the Tucson-based group Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, or Coalition for Human Rights, tries to protect crossers from bandits and warns them of the natural dangers they may face.

But while families trying to cross may have second thoughts once they're warned, ``the problem is that the people who are already at the border have decided to cross,'' said Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, Mexican consul in Nogales.