Less than a month after 14 smuggled migrants died in the scorched desert, U.S. and Mexican officials announced a plan Friday to expand manpower and resources at the Arizona border to prevent more deaths in a treacherous stretch known as "the devil's corridor."
Some immigrant rights advocates labeled the commitment a well-intentioned but inadequate response to a mounting life-or-death problem at the border. But U.S. authorities heralded it as an important sign of Mexico's new willingness under President Vicente Fox to cooperate with the United States on matters of vital mutual interest.
As part of the plan to beef up safety and security along a 350-mile stretch of the Arizona border, the United States is committing three additional surveillance helicopters, more than 75 border and rescue agents, and more resources for mapping and electronic communications.
And for the first time, the United States and Mexico are jointly designating a wide swath of the desert as a "high-risk" immigration zone, which will trigger additional surveillance and patrol operations by both countries once the thermometer hits 100 degrees.
"When the temperatures soar to those unbearable levels, we'll now see an automatic response," Johnny Williams, regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said in an interview. "We see this as a very significant step for both countries."
The commitment capped daylong meetings Thursday in Tucson between U.S. and Mexican immigration authorities. Improving border safety has been a longtime concern, but the deaths of the 14 Mexicans last month galvanized the two countries and gave an added note of urgency to their discussions, Williams said.
The migrants, after hiking for as many as five days through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in temperatures reaching 115 degrees, were abandoned with little water in a desolate area the size of Delaware, authorities said. The victims were found May 23, dead of heat exposure, while a dozen others in the group were rescued.
Nearly 100 migrants died in Arizona last year.
The 50-mile stretch of desert east of Yuma is notorious among immigration agents and migrants alike. Agents call it "the devil's corridor," while smugglers know it as "el corredor del diablo."
Williams, the INS' Western chief, said border patrols have actually seen a downturn of 25% or more in recent months in illegal crossings in Arizona and California, with the San Diego region at a 30-year low. Even so, he said that, with the brutal heat of summer approaching, last month's tragedy demanded expanded measures.
One of the key steps in the plan is the commitment of three additional U.S. helicopters and three pilots at least temporarily for the Tucson region, bringing its total air fleet to 12.
Mexico and the United States also agreed to expand their cooperation in mapping danger zones, improving electronic communications and expanding joint intelligence efforts to identify smugglers and migrant groups, officials said.
"Both countries are committed to working to promote safe, legal, humane and orderly immigration," said Roberto Rodriguez-Hernandez, deputy director of protection and consular affairs at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His remarks were echoed by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and U.S. Border Patrol chief Gustavo De La Vina.
Another idea that U.S. authorities are considering in the region is the erection of perhaps half a dozen 30-foot-tall "rescue towers," with strobe lights and distress buttons. Border-crossers who are lost or in peril could use the towers to notify authorities of their location.