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Border Patrol assailed

Critics allege human rights 'crisis' on eve of Ashcroft visit to Arizona

Jerry Kammer
Republic Washington Bureau
May 5, 2001

WASHINGTON - A migrants advocate on Friday called on the U.S. Border Patrol to suspend the buildup of officers that she said has contributed to hundreds of deaths by forcing illegal immigrants into remote areas.

"What we are seeing is a huge crisis in terms of human rights," said Isabel Garcia, a Tucson attorney who also charged that the Border Patrol has allowed its agents to abuse illegal border crossers "with total impunity."

Garcia's statements at a policy forum organized by migrant advocacy groups came on the day that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft began a four-day visit to the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas and Arizona - and at the beginning of Arizona's long season of deadly desert heat.

Roy D. Villareal, assistant Border Patrol chief, told the policy forum that his agency is making strong efforts to rescue border crossers who find themselves in desperate circumstances. He said that although 630 border crossers have died in the past two years, a U.S.-Mexican border safety program has rescued more than 4,000 migrants since 1998. He also rebutted Garcia's charge of widespread, unpunished abuses by agents.

"The Border Patrol does not condone, nor is it going to accept, agents acting with impunity or violating people's rights," Villareal said. Reporting that the agency last year arrested 1.6 million people, he said, "There's probably one allegation (of abuse) for every 5,000 arrests. . . . If you look at other law enforcement agencies, we are doing pretty well."

Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, a critic of the Border Patrol buildup, said in a telephone interview that the Ashcroft visit will provide "an opportunity for the Border Patrol to push their agenda to say, 'We need more of this and more of that.' " He said his consistent criticism probably accounts for why he was not asked to meet with Ashcroft on Sunday when he will be in town.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican whose district includes Tucson and part of Arizona's southern border, defended the Border Patrol and said migrants often get into trouble when they are abandoned by "coyotes," smugglers hired to guide them around the Border Patrol and across the border.

"If there is a human rights problem, we should point the finger at the coyotes, who are truly guilty of murder in many cases when they abandon these people," Kolbe said in a telephone interview. "That is where the real human rights violations occur."

Kolbe has called on the Border Patrol to add more agents to its Tucson sector, which stretches along the border from Nogales east to Douglas and on to the New Mexico line. Increased federal funding has boosted the entire agency to more than 9,000 agents, up from 4,200 in 1994.

President Bush is asking Congress for $75 million to hire 570 more Border Patrol agents in each of the next two years to beef up law enforcement. If federal lawmakers approve, the number of agents would climb to 11,000 by 2003.

For the past several years, the Tucson sector has recorded more arrests on the border than any other. Last year, agents there made 296,359 arrests, a 22 percent drop from the previous year.

Experts cite a variety of reasons for the drop, including increased awareness in Mexico of the difficulty of crossing the border, to improvements in the Mexican economy, to rising Mexican morale after last summer's historic presidential election ended seven decades of one-party rule.

Borane said the reduced arrest figures do not justify the buildup.

"If the numbers are down and they are so on top of everything, why are they building up this major garrison, this militarized zone?" Borane asked. "The Mexicans are coming over here to work, and it's getting to be disgraceful on the part of the United States government to treat these people like hardened criminals.

"There are so many agents now, they're just running into one another down here."

He contrasted the federal government's border enforcement with its passivity about federal law that makes it illegal to hire undocumented workers.

"If they really wanted to stop the Mexicans, they'd go to Las Vegas and Aspen and the Catskills, and they'd clean out the hotels," Borane said. "But they don't because of politics, because the lobbying is too strong. It's hypocritical and ridiculous."


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