Aid Stations Aim to Help Illegal Crossers Avoid Perishing in Cold
DESCANSO, Calif. (Los Angeles Times) Deep in a canyon in eastern San Diego County, the banner is an incongruous blue smudge against a rugged landscape of scrub oak and car-sized boulders.
The flag marks an emergency cold-weather kit, one of a series of aid stations that volunteers have begun installing in the mountains to help illegal border crossers who venture into terrain that can be as deadly as it is beautiful.
The aid stations consist of plastic storage bins crammed with blankets, sleeping bags, jackets, sweatshirts, food and bottled water. Marked by flags and blinking red bicycle lights atop eight-foot poles, the stations are the latest effort to prevent fatalities among migrants sneaking through Southern California's back country. In summer, most deaths occur in the Imperial County desert, but winter shifts the danger to San Diego's mountain country for illegal immigrants returning from holiday visits in Mexico. Seventy-two migrants have died here since 1996, most of them victims of freezing temperatures.
"We know it's not going to solve everything, but if we can save one life, it's worth it," said Enrique Morones, a former San Diego Padres executive who is directing the winter effort.
Morones said he got the idea for the cold-weather kits after joining volunteers in placing water stations along commonly traveled routes in Imperial County for the last two years. The leader of that effort, John Hunter, is helping on the cold-weather project.
On a recent afternoon, Morones and Hunter hiked into Horsethief Canyon, about 15 miles north of the border in the Cleveland National Forest, to resupply bins they had set out two weeks earlier. At each, they added donated blankets, sweatshirts and trail-mix bars, though there was little sign that the aid bins had yet been used.
Not far away, eight migrants perished and more than 50 others had to be rescued in 1999 after they were caught in a freak April snowstorm that sent temperatures plummeting. Like many others crossing unlawfully, the victims were woefully unprepared for the cold. Some wore sneakers and T-shirts.
A year later, three others died during a winter storm in a neighboring section of the national forest.
"They may be hiking out there in the hills for two or three days and then they get caught in these storm events," said Nelson Dean, district ranger for the Descanso area. "They get wet in the lower elevations and then climb up and get into the colder and snowy conditions. Then they get into trouble."
Dean said the illegal crossers often hesitate to summon help. "We've found people that literally died along highways that are well-traveled," he said.
The number of deaths here jumped as the mountains became a popular smuggling route in response to the U.S. government campaign to reinforce the border near San Diego beginning in 1994. The fatalities, and a sharp rise in the number of forest fires, prompted authorities to form a border council made up of local, state and federal agencies.
The U.S. Border Patrol launched special snow-rescue squads, and upon word of bad weather, teams of forest rangers now patrol back roads in search of imperiled migrants.
Officials say those efforts are paying off. Last winter, there were no reported hypothermia deaths in the national forest, which covers 302,000 acres in San Diego County. At least 180 people were rescued, most of them in the mountains, according to the Border Patrol.
The Border Patrol knows about the new winter stations but is staying neutral.
"We'd rather the migrants not cross in that area at all," said Raleigh Leonard, an agency spokesman in San Diego. "It's a huge humanitarian effort, but we don't want to give these migrants a false sense of security."
Morones and Hunter hope to install 20 to 25 stations by the end of February. They are awaiting federal permission before putting any more on national forest land. The volunteers also have approached the Kumeyaay tribe in hopes of placing some kits on reservation land nearby.
Morones concedes that migrants in danger may never spot the stations amid the vast and rugged landscape. He acknowledges, too, that only changes in immigration policy will likely alter the deadly phenomenon.
"In the meantime," he said during the canyon hike, "we've got to be doing something."