Dying To Get In

Former Immigration Officials Says Billions Wasted On Border Control

This segment was originally broadcast on Dec. 11, 2005.

When it comes to illegal immigration, the leaders of both parties haven't found much to agree on – except for one thing. Just about everyone wants to spend billions of dollars to tighten the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border.

There is nothing new about this. Since 1993, the U.S. government has tripled the budget for border control, spending a small fortune on fences, high-tech surveillance equipment – not to mention thousands of additional border patrol agents. All of this was supposed to make it harder for illegal immigrants to cross over in cities and towns along the border. And it did.

But, as correspondent Ed Bradley reported last December, some of the same people who designed that strategy now say it's been a huge waste of taxpayers' money and that it has done nothing to stop migrants from coming to the U.S. illegally. What it has done, they say, is to force those migrants to cross remote and treacherous stretches of desert, where many are dying.

The death toll is so high that the Border Patrol now has a special unit whose only job to help migrants in trouble. During the filming of our 60 Minutes story, Officer Garrett Neubauer received a distress call about 20 miles north of the border in southern Arizona.

"What we had is a person walked out to one of the roads, flagged down some agents, waved them down and stated that he had left his friend out on the desert," says Neubauer.

The migrant they're looking for is an 18-year-old Mexican named Abran Gonzales, who has been wandering in the desert for seven days. Agents have narrowed the search area and have found one of his shoes.

"That's what we're looking for, and that's why I wanted to see his shoe. Just to kind of get an idea of what his other shoe looks like. So I know what I'm looking for on the ground. It sounds to me like he's kind of out of it. He's dehydrated. His condition is going downhill, so he's probably not thinking rationally," says Neubauer.

Agent Neubauer has good reason to be concerned. 60 Minutes took a first-hand look at the paths taken by migrants through the desert last summer when temperatures hovered above 100 degrees for weeks at a time. Last year, the Border Patrol reported a record 464 deaths, but by all accounts the number is much higher because of bodies that haven't been found.

Dr. Bruce Parks, Tucson's Medical Examiner, has been on the job for years and says he has never seen anything like this. There are so many bodies, they won't fit in the vaults in the coroner's morgue.

When 60 Minutes visited, Dr. Parks had found a place to put an extra 60 bodies, a refrigerated truck that costs his department $1,000 a week.

Twelve years ago, things were very different. Back then, no migrants died in the desert. That's because it was easier to come in through American cities along the border. Too easy, according to Mark Reed, who was the top immigration official in San Diego.

"When I got there, our inspectors were hiding in the inspection booths for fear of stepping out and being run over, literally trampled by people running through the port of entry itself and through the booths where the cars were, over the top of immigration inspectors if necessary," says Reed.

How many would come at one time?

"Groups of 500 people running up the southbound lanes of I-5," he recalls.

The migrants had figured out that if there were enough of them, most of them could get through. The stampedes occurred with such frequency that they became a public relations embarrassment to government officials. The Clinton administration decided something had to be done. Huge metal walls went up, high tech surveillance systems were purchased – and they did seal off major cities along the border, but not the mountains and desert in between.