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Toxic River Becomes Path To USA

By Valerie Alvord
Special for USA TODAY, May 11, 2000

CALEXICO, Calif. - The New River gushes north out of Mexico into California's Imperial Valley at enormous speed - a viscous ribbon of green, churning up mounds of white foam from industrial waste, pesticide runoff and raw sewage. Its eye-stinging, toxic stench is overpowering as it swirls by, carrying clogs of trash.

At night, this river also carries people.

Migrants from Mexico float in the New River to enter the U.S.A.     By Jeffrey L. Brown, Aurora

During the past few months, thousands of migrants desperate to cross the heavily patrolled U.S.-Mexico border have stripped to their underwear and slipped into the murky water on the Mexican side. Clutching inner tubes and plastic bags filled with dry clothes, they ride the current past the helpless la migra, their word for the U.S. Border Patrol, and into the USA.

By Genevieve Lynn, USA TODAY

"They know we aren't going in after them," says Roger Carpenter, a Border Patrol supervisor. Though agents aren't prohibited from going into the polluted river, it's generally agreed that it is too dangerous for all concerned. "Until recently, the river was a deterrent. Now they use it as an entry point, and there's very little we can do."

Mostly men, the migrants come in groups of ten to 20. Often they lock arms around one or two tubes and float down the river behind a couple of scouts.

Frustrated Border Patrol agents can only run alongside, dodging thickets and tree branches, trying to guess where the human flotillas might disembark.

Discarded: A photo lies amid piles of clothes, shoes and tire inneer tubes along a riverbank where migrants climb out of the New River after entering the USA.

Taking samples: Water control engineers Kola Olatunbosun, left, and Rafael Molina wear double sets of gloves as they check pollution levels.

Because of the danger of tripping in the dark of night and tumbling into the poisonous water, only a few of the most determined agents will venture close enough to the edge to try to coax out the migrants. That rarely does any good.

If pressed by too many agents, the migrants hide in the cover of muddy, polluted coves for hours. Once they come out, they quickly dress and make the short run to a housing development or a nearby strip mall in Calexico.

"At that point, they're essentially home free," Carpenter says.

Agents estimate that anywhere from 50 to several hundred people use the toxic river each night as a floating freeway into the USA. "It's a thorny problem, in that we have found no way to address it," says Tom Walker, Calexico Border Patrol chief. "We thought of installing a grate that would go all the way to the bottom (of the river). But trash would collect, and anything we pull out of there we have to handle as toxic waste. That means we'd have to find a toxic dump - where, I don't even know."

Clumps of pollution: the sewer system of Mexicali, Mexico, often overflows into the New River.

Cauldron of poison: Refuse covers the surface of the New River, which flows from Mexico into the USA near Calexico in southeast California.

A Toxic Waterway

Calexico hugs Mexico at the tip of the Imperial Valley in the southeast corner of California, about 150 miles east of San Diego. It is a flat, desert city of about 30,000, straddled by mountains. Irrigation water from the Colorado River transforms the valley into a verdant agricultural hub.

Directly across the border is Mexicali, a sprawling metropolis of about 1 million. It's a popular location for foreign-owned factories, called maquiladoras. The New River runs through it, collecting industrial waste and agricultural runoff. The city's sewer system, overwhelmed by growth, routinely overflows into the river.

The waterway slices through a Mexican truck-and-auto storage lot and crosses the border at a closed industrial port of entry before continuing 60 miles through the Imperial Valley in California to the Salton Sea. The river has long been a bubbling cauldron of local controversy. Politicians have dubbed it "the dirtiest river in America" and want it cleaned up.

Plans for a new Mexicali sewer system are in the works, funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, completion is years away.

The river presents significant health hazards, says Jose Angel of the California Water Quality Control Board, who has monitored the waterway since 1975.

"It's not a river that carries fresh water," Angel says. "It's dominated by wastewater, indicated by the high levels of coliform bacteria, which are measured there in the millions (per milliliter of water). Around 400 is considered the upper level of safe."

High levels of coliform bacteria, Angel says, are indicators of the presence of bacterial and viral diseases, including typhoid fever. "It seems like a miracle to me that we haven't had an outbreak of something," he says.

No one knows exactly what health problems might result from a long dunk in the river, he says, because these illegal immigrants meet up with smugglers and disperse throughout the USA. And while there is no direct connection, recent government reports have noted that California's immigrant populations have the highest rates of tuberculosis in the nation.

Angel says it only stands to reason that people using the river to float into the USA run a tremendous risk of getting sick.

The migrants don't see it that way. When Carpenter asks them why they do it, he always gets the same answer. "They tell me, 'I need to get a job so I can send money home to my wife and children.'"

Treacherous journey: Migrants keep their clothes dry in plastic bags as they travel up the New River.

Operation Gatekeeper

For years, the line of demarcation between Calexico and Mexicali was a broken-down, wire-mesh fence that was easy to cut through. Back then, migrants climbed through a hole in the fence about half a mile from the closed port and made a dash across a flat field to the highway. The river was their main obstacle; they had to swim it to reach the road.

Now, there's a sturdy, corrugated-steel fence. It's part of the border crackdown known as Operation Gatekeeper, which has directed more Border Patrol agents and resources to the U.S.-Mexico border to deter illegal immigration.

Gatekeeper started in San Diego in 1994 and has steadily moved east. A Gatekeeper-type strategy has also been deployed in Texas. The theory is that if the United States closes off easy points of entry, the flow of illegal immigrants will slow to a trickle.

That hasn't happened.

From 1985 to 1995, the Border Patrol in the Calexico sector averaged between 27,000 and 37,000 arrests each year. As Gatekeeper shut down easy routes closer to San Diego, more migrants began trekking through mountains and deserts to the east. In Texas, where the Rio Grande runs almost the entire length of the border, a rising death toll from drownings is an indication that Gatekeeper is pushing more illegal migrants to that state as well, Smith says.

Arrests in the Calexico sector skyrocketed to more than a quarter-million a year. Since the beginning of Gatekeeper, apprehensions in San Diego have gone down, but the combined total of arrests across the California border continues to climb.

The death toll of migrants has also skyrocketed. California Rural Legal Assistance, a migrants' rights group, keeps tally. The year before Gatekeeper started, there were 115 deaths along the border from California to Texas. Last year there were 356, or, about "one a day," says the group's director, Claudia Smith.

Angel: 'It's not a river that carries fresh water. It's dominated by wastewater, indicated by the high levels of coliform bacteria.'

Many died from exposure and heat exhaustion while crossing the mountains and desert.

In Calexico, the fence stretches two miles, from the border to another waterway, the All-American Canal, which parallels the border and acts as an impediment. For years, smugglers using commercial-quality rafts have set up nightly ferries across the 50-foot canal.

Riding the river is a new phenomenon, Carpenter says, "a trend, if you will."

"Until recently, the river was a deterrent. Now they use it as an entry point, and there's very little we can do."

--Roger Carpenter,
Border Patrol supervisor

In The River

On a recent night, in the glare of high-powered lights trained on the fence, agents watched the 30-foot gap where the river breaches the border.

"They're getting a late start," says Carpenter, who is standing next to his van on a bluff about 100 yards away. It is exactly 9:01 p.m. when the first scouts, dressed in swim trunks and black muscle shirts, skirt a narrow path from the auto storage lot down to the river.

A few minutes later, a parade of men in white underwear follows.

"Thirteen in the river," says a voice on the Border Patrol radio.

"Eight more in the river," the radio announces 20 minutes later. "Ten in the river," the voice soon adds. As each group floats by, the men look up to the bluff and watch the agents watching them.

Meanwhile, attempts to intercept the first group have failed. Four came out dressed, but when they saw an agent, they dove back in.

Carpenter drives to a bend in the river. He spots an empty inner tube floating by. "They're home free," he says.

He drives back to the bluff and looks at his watch. It's 10 p.m.

"Well, that's 30 in one hour," he says. "And we still have eight more hours 'til dawn. Do the math."

His shift is ending, and he heads back to the station.

"Twenty more in the river," the radio cackles as he drives off.

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