Deaths of 6 Reignite Border Debate
By TONY PERRY and LISA RICHARDSON
Authorities on Tuesday were calling an accident that killed six people and injured 16 one of the most horrific collisions arising from the daily struggle of illegal immigrants trying to evade the U.S. Border Patrol.
Five suspected illegal immigrants and a 50-year-old male citizen from Albuquerque were killed instantly about 9 p.m. Monday when a "load van" stuffed with 33 people struck four oncoming vehicles on Interstate 8 about 50 miles east of downtown San Diego.
The collision immediately rekindled debate about immigrant smuggling and whether U.S. border policy is contributing to the death toll as immigrants resort to ever riskier routes and stratagems to enter the country. Although vehicle accidents account for only a small fraction of the overall death toll, the number of immigrants dying in their attempt to reach the United States has increased sharply in recent years as the federal government has tightened its control over less-risky routes near the San Ysidro border crossing.
Moments before Monday's accident, the van was speeding west in the eastbound lanes with headlights off in an apparent attempt to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint, California Highway Patrol officials said.
Having looped around the checkpoint, the driver may have been trying to return to the westbound lanes when disaster stuck.
The 1994 Dodge van--designed to accommodate only 15 passengers--first sideswiped a 1989 Honda Prelude driven by Mary K. Miner, 29, of Boulevard, a community in eastern San Diego County, and a 1996 Honda Accord driven by Sarah J. Kay, 20, of Santa Cruz. Neither woman suffered serious injuries.
Then the van slammed head-on into a 1993 Ford Explorer driven by Larry S. Baca, 50, of Albuquerque. The Explorer became airborne, jumped a guardrail and tumbled down a sharp embankment, landing upside down. Baca was killed instantly.
Finally, the van hit another vehicle head-on--a 1989 Toyota van driven by Maria F. Amaya, 45, of Boulevard. She was hospitalized in serious condition. There were no skid marks on the pavement, suggesting that the crashes occurred too fast for the drivers to react along the dark stretch of highway, two lanes in each direction separated by a wide planted median.
Thirty-one people were taken to eight San Diego area hospitals. Sixteen continued to receive treatment Tuesday; three were in critical condition. Those from the Dodge van who were treated and released were taken into custody by the Border Patrol.
None of the immigrants killed--four men and one woman--carried identification, which is hampering attempts by the county medical examiner to determine names and notify relatives. Their ages were estimated to range from 25 to 35.
Amaya and her 18-year-old son were returning home after receiving treatment for injuries caused by an earlier traffic accident, according to Eileen Cornish, spokeswoman for Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. Amaya, the last to be struck, had tried to swerve but did not have time to miss the Dodge van, Cornish added.
CHP investigators believe that the driver of the Dodge van--who was among the dead--had used an emergency turnout to cross from the westbound to eastbound lanes about a mile east of the Border Patrol checkpoint. The collision occurred about a mile west of the checkpoint.
Tangled cars and bodies were strewn across both eastbound lanes, shutting the freeway for hours. Emergency vehicles returning from a brush fire in the back country were diverted to help with the injured.
On Tuesday, shards of glass, twisted metal and a scattering of personal papers, music cassettes and picnic ware were all that remained at the scene. Baca's Explorer had been removed but a T-shirt sealed in a plastic bag, a golf club and one white tennis shoe remained where the sport utility vehicle had come to rest.
Standing at the entrance to Sharp Memorial, where three Mexican citizens were being treated, a Mexican consular official laid much of the blame for the accident on smugglers. Most of the immigrants were from Mexico, some from Brazil and others from Central America, officials said.
The migrants "are trying to come across the border looking for opportunity," said Juan Carlos Sanchez. "But it's the smugglers who are definitely putting people at risk of dying. It's organized business. Those people are just merchandise to them."
But Claudia Smith, director of the border project of the Oceanside-based office of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the U.S. crackdown on the border, dubbed Operation Gatekeeper, also shares the blame by forcing immigrants away from easier and safer routes.
"These deaths are entirely foreseeable," she said. "We're sitting on the border of hypocrisy. We have made smugglers indispensable. What do you expect? People are going to continue to come here, and the smugglers are the only way to get across."
Ben Seeley of the San Diego-based Border Solutions Task Force, which has called for an even tougher approach to illegal immigration, disagreed sharply.
"This is a tragedy that never had to happen," Seeley said. "Until we get the border sealed off and until the checkpoints work like they're supposed to, it's going to happen. Smugglers have no regard for human life."
Although there has been a series of crashes on I-8 involving load vans packed with illegal immigrants in recent years, two factors often present do not seem to have played a part in Monday night's crash.
First, while some accidents have been attributed to vans' picking up speed on steep hills and going out of control, this crash occurred on a relatively flat portion of the freeway. Tom Nipper, spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, blamed the driver. "No way we can engineer the highway against a problem like that," he said.
Second, there is no indication that the van was being chased or even followed by the Border Patrol or California Highway Patrol.
"This was just somebody who decided to drive westbound in an eastbound lane with their lights out," said Border Patrol Agent James Jacques. Immigrants, he said, "are ignorant about what awaits them when they try to cross" the border.
"They have no idea that these smugglers are giving them a death sentence."
The number of immigrants killed making the trek northward has increased in recent years, with heat exhaustion being the most common cause. In the San Diego area, 134 immigrants died attempting to cross in 2001 and 140 in 2000; of those, 35 are listed as having died from car accidents and other non-heat-related causes.
In 1996, eight illegal immigrants died and 19 were injured when their vehicle tumbled into a ditch on a rural road near Temecula while being trailed by a Border Patrol agent. Later that year two people were killed and 19 injured when a load van hit a Border Patrol van and careered off Interstate 8 east of San Diego.
Times staff writers Don Bartletti, Jennifer Mena and Dan Weikel contributed to this report. Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times