ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Reducing Deaths at the Border

Another recent Border Patrol chase resulted in a fatal accident. There have been at least 20 such deaths from Border Patrol pursuits in the state in the last 10 years--in addition to scores of chase-related injuries.

This time the victim was 17-year-old Maria Resendiz from Mexico. The girl was a passenger in a vehicle suspected of being used to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States. Eight other people were injured--two critically--when the truck went over an embankment and crashed into a carport in a San Ysidro neighborhood.

This was not a high-speed chase, the Border Patrol says. But on the same day, another Border Patrol pursuit just north of the checkpoint at Camp Pendleton reached 95 m.p.h. No accident occurred in that chase, but a number of accidents in recent years in the city of San Clemente attest to the risk of such pursuits.

The threat to innocent bystanders was clear from the San Ysidro incident. What if someone had been in the carport when the truck crashed?

Chases are difficult situations for any police agency. Officers do not know whether the person fleeing is a dangerous criminal.

But in the case of the Border Patrol, there is a fairly high degree of certainty that the person being pursued is an illegal immigrant or an alien smuggler. Catching a few more illegal aliens is certainly not worth risking the lives of agents, suspects, innocent bystanders or other motorists.

But there are no simple ways to stop the carnage when desperately poor people are willing to risk injury and death to try for a better life.

A more secure checkpoint in North San Diego County would help cut down on the accidents in San Clemente; one costing $10 million is proposed in President Bush's 1990-91 budget sent to Congress last week. Forbidding pursuits would give smugglers a green light to flee. And expecting agents to call off a chase when it becomes dangerous--which is Border Patrol policy--will always depend on human judgment colored by adrenaline and the desire to make the arrest.

But a stricter policy of permitting fewer pursuits, combined with a financial commitment from Congress for a more secure North San Diego County checkpoint, could help prevent deaths such as Maria Resendiz's.

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