Bitterness at the Border


John Eisele pulls back the sheet covering the frail body of a young Mexican woman. He is preparing for an autopsy on yet another illegal immigrant found along the border in the southeast corner of California.

He’s in the embalming room of Frye Mortuary, where he and two other pathologists take turns working for Imperial County. Unable to afford its own morgue or coroner, the rural county contracts for their services.

Eisele, a former pathologist for San Diego who volunteers in humanitarian efforts worldwide, sometimes has trouble dealing with the task at hand.

“The hardest part is personalizing it,” he says. “When you see it happening in these numbers, you can’t help but wonder what they went through and how bad their lives must have been.”


Since January, almost 100 illegal immigrants have died crossing the canals and desert of Imperial County. That’s nearly double the numbers of last year.

It’s also double the financial burden on this county, where many of its 130,000 residents work on acres of irrigated desert to grow alfalfa, winter vegetables and Bermuda grass for seed.

Ralph Smith, coroner’s investigator for the county sheriff’s department, blames the increase on Operation Gatekeeper. “And,” he warns, “we’re just starting to see the effects.”

Gatekeeper was begun four years ago by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which beefed up patrols to try to stop the flow of illegal immigrants in San Diego County.

However, migrants were not stopped. The restricted flow there caused a surge to the more dangerous routes to the east, exploding in Imperial County. Border agents now arrest an average of 1,000 illegal immigrants a day in Imperial County, about 120 miles east of San Diego, and rescue dozens who run short of water or energy.

“We got all of that on top of our regular workload,” Smith says. “We’ve really been hit hard, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.”

Imperial County is not alone. Twenty-four counties, both rural and urban, hug the border that stretches 1,700 miles from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. They share a transient population of Mexican nationals who require more public services than the counties can afford: jails, hospitals, courts and foster care, to name a few.

Providing services to poor people in need is not the problem, officials in those counties say. Raising taxes and cutting programs is--especially without reimbursement from the federal government whose border policies they enforce.


“We shouldn’t be faced with this,” says Charles Mattox, a county judge in El Paso, Texas, where property taxes were raised this year to offset an estimated $14 million spent to enforce immigration laws. “It’s a U.S. problem to enforce our border, not a local responsibility.”

Tom Veysey, vice chairman of the Imperial County board, says, “The costs were something we’d always lived with, but now it’s becoming unlivable.”

The county spent more than $1 million in services during a summer of extreme enduring heat, he says. Those expenses came under examination after 10 illegal immigrants were found dead in one week in the desert, stretching resources.

The sheriff’s department, for example, has three investigators in its coroner’s office, but no coroner. It has spent nearly $200,000 this year on identifying the bodies of illegal immigrants and determining their cause of death.


Amy Byrd, a spokeswoman for one of the county’s two hospitals, says Pioneers Memorial Hospital last year had $2 million in uncollected bills, mostly from illegal immigrants unable to pay. That included $226,000 for obstetric care for women who crossed the border to give birth.

Since July of this year, the hospital has spent $210,000 to treat migrants, including more than half on one man found with a core body temperature of 108. He died after nine days in intensive care.

In addition, there is medical help for migrants who suffer from dehydration in the desert, get injured in smugglers’ vans or while jumping aboard railroad cars headed north to Los Angeles.

Janet Thornberg, a county employee who collected the cost statistics, cites the primary concern: frequent requests by the U.S. Border Patrol to assist in rescues.


Although rescue calls have not denied an ambulance service to county residents, Thornberg sees a risk. That could be avoided, however, if the federal government would pay the monthly bill of $3,500 for ambulance service and allow the private provider to hire more drivers or buy more ambulances.

There’s also the strain on jails and courts.

“The federal authorities don’t mess with drug smugglers bringing in small shipments of, say, 100 pounds or less. They turn that over to the local authorities,” says Denis Armijo, a commissioner of sparsely populated Luna County, N.M., just west of Las Cruces. “That really burdens our court system and jails. Smugglers know the law, and they often don’t bring enough in to land them in a federal court.”

San Diego County, one of the wealthiest along the border, is also one of the hardest hit. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob estimated that San Diego spends $230 million annually--including $50 million on health care--on costs related to illegal immigration.


Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the INS’ western division, could not give a breakdown of the agency’s $3.8-billion budget, but he says the bulk is for border patrol.

Though aware of the expense for counties, he supports the INS effort. “What would be the cost if borders were not under control?” he asks. “What is their quality of life worth?”

The INS is trying to help communities, says Strassberger, mentioning a pilot program in Nogales, Ariz., where the agency is paying ambulance costs for migrant rescues. He says the INS can’t do more unless Congress appropriates funds specifically to reimburse the counties.

Forming a border coalition may provide some relief. The idea surfaced last year after Santa Cruz County, Ariz., hired the University of Arizona to study the impact of illegal immigration on its criminal justice system.


Researchers found that, in 1996, Santa Cruz spent $2.8 million--more than half its annual criminal justice budget--to cover such costs.

So county supervisors along the border organized to lobby Congress.

“We hope there is strength in numbers,” Armijo said. “If all the counties get together with one voice and get the attention of congressional members from four states, we’re more likely to get things done.”

Claudia Smith, an Oceanside, Calif., woman who works for migrants’ rights, says the solution isn’t getting more money, it’s changing INS strategy.


“The costs will keep multiplying, and the problems of immigration will not be served any further unless the INS starts prosecuting U.S. employers who hire migrant workers,” she said.

“People can cross the border and get jobs for $3 an hour, which is more than they’d make in a day in Mexico,” she says. “They come here for economic opportunity. And employers are hooked on throwaway labor. It’s all about supply and demand.”

Counties like Imperial, she says, are paying the price for the bad federal policy that has caused a squeeze-and-bulge effect along the border.

“It is wholly unacceptable to have a strategy to put people in mortal harm’s way, to push them into the mountains and desert, out of the public eye, and it’s not even effective,” she says.


“The counties and taxpayers are footing the bill for this ineffective strategy, but the ultimate price is being paid by the migrants.”