Arrest In Border Deaths

A United State Marine Corps Search and Rescue team member, left, and an emergency room team member push an undocumented immigrant in a wheelchair into the emergency room at the Yuma Regional Medical Center in Yuma, Wednesday, May 23, 2001. Twelve illegal immigrants died in the Arizona desert after crossing the border from Mexico, and rescuers searched Wednesday for others who might be stranded in temperatures that climbed as high as 115 degrees, the Border Patrol said. AP

One of 12 survivors of a border crossing that ended in 14 deaths was arrested Tuesday on allegations of smuggling illegal immigrants, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service said.

INS spokesman Ron Rogers did not say what charges were being filed against the man and did not give his name.

It was the deadliest immigrant smuggling incident ever in Arizona.

Survivors said the immigrants, all men or teen-age boys, were smuggled into the United States May 19 east of Yuma, in the rugged terrain of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

The smugglers left them there, promising to return with water and instructing them to walk for "a couple of hours" to a highway. But they never came back. The highway was more than 50 miles from where they were abandoned.

The Border Patrol began its search on May 23 after five sunburned survivors found agents and sought help. Temperatures climbed as high as 115 degrees. They subsequently found six more survivors, some unconscious.

The bodies were discovered about 25 miles from the Mexican border.

The survivors were hospitalized for heat exhaustion, severe dehydration and kidney damage.

The Rev. Javier Perez, a Roman Catholic priest who visited the hospitalized immigrants Thursday, said they told him they survived by digging up roots and breaking cactus to drink its juice. One told doctors he drank his own urine in desperation.

Getting In
More from CBS News on the desperate fight to enter the United States:

Deadly Crossing
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The New Border War
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Braving The Rio Grande
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Crossing The Toxic River
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Three survivors of the border crossing were released into U.S. Border Patrol custody Monday.

Eight survivors were released from the hospital into U.S. Border Patrol custody on Saturday and Sunday. The last survivor who remained hospitalized was in good condition Monday.

The Border Patrol was holding the men and teen-age boys who were released from the hospital at the Yuma County Adult Detention Facility. They were being held as witnesses in an investigation of the smuggling operation.

Officials said they also must check the immigrants for any past deportations or criminal activity before they will be turned over to Mexican authorities and sent home.

The victims are among 48 immigrants who have died trying to cross the Arizona desert since last fall. These 14 made up the largest group of border crossers ever to die in Arizona, Border Patrol spokesman Rene Noriega said in Tucson.

In July 1980, 13 Salvadorans died in the desert Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 50 miles east of where the current group died.

It was believed to be the deadliest attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since 1987, when 18 Mexican men died in a locked railroad boxcar near Sierra Blanca, Texas.

The U.S. and Mexico released a joint statement on the tragedy, saying that the two governments "condemn the actions of smugglers who put the lives of would-be migrants at risk." The two governments plan to discuss migration issues at a high-level June conference.

According to the Border Patrol, 106 people died while crossing southern Arizona's deserts during the 12-month period that ended on Sept. 30, 2000, and more than 4,200 others have been rescued since 1998.

A total of 367 people died last year trying to cross the border. So far this fiscal year, 388,337 illegal immigrants have been stopped, according to INS reports.

Arizona became a popular crossing point for illegal immigrants in the 1990s, after crackdowns in California and Texas pushed more people to try to enter the country through remote and dangerous areas.

Rick Ufford-Chase of BorderLinks, a Tucson-based public-awareness group, believes the government's crackdown on California and Texas border crossings is a deadly policy, saying: "We've made the act of looking for a better job in the United States a crime that carries the death penalty with it."

The Border Patrol has launched a safety initiative aimed at reducing danger to people who try to enter the country illegally, its agents taking on the role of emergency life-saving in addition to law enforcement.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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