ACLU, Rights Group Ask United Nations Panel to Investigate Migrant Deaths at U.S. Border

April 14, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, April 14, 1999

SAN DIEGO — At a meeting tomorrow in Geneva, Switzerland, the American Civil Liberties Union and a California legal aid group will ask the United Nations Human Rights Commission to condemn “Operation Gatekeeper,” an increasingly deadly U.S. Border Patrol program along the California-Mexico border.

In its joint request for the meeting, the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties said that the death toll is 389 and counting since the program was launched four and a half years ago. The groups are urging the Commission to look into U.S. human rights violations through the appointment of a Special Rapporteur, or investigator.

“The Clinton Administration cannot be permitted to continue to conduct its border enforcement policy with impunity,” said ACLU Managing Attorney Jordan Budd. “People are dying horrible deaths in the mountains and the desert. We will urge the United Nations to shine the light of international scrutiny on this lethal tactic through its Special Rapporteur procedure.”

The brutal border-control strategy deliberately puts migrants in mortal harm’s way, the groups have charged, by driving them further into the Imperial desert and causing more of them to risk the swift currents of the All-American Canal. Last year, 48 migrants died of heat stroke along the California-Mexico border. Another 52 migrants drowned trying to avoid treks in the desert of up to 20 miles.

“The only real achievement of the program, and at terrible cost, is moving the migrant foot traffic out of the public eye,” said Claudia Smith of the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “It is 389 migrant deaths past time for the Clinton Administration to make human rights a pillar of its domestic policy.”

Since January 1999, 35 migrants have died at the California border — up 29 percent from 1998. The groups attributed the increase to a recent deployment of more agents and technology to El Centro, a border crossing area. A total of 16 migrants died during Easter Week — eight of hypothermia in the Tecate mountains on Good Friday.

Combined apprehension figures for San Diego and Imperial Counties demonstrate that the buildup at the border has not significantly discouraged would-be border crossers. There was a drop of just 3,111 apprehensions — a less than 1 percent reduction – between 1994 and 1998. The real battle against illegal immigration, the groups said, is not at the border, but at the work sites.

In February, the ACLU and the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation filed a petition with the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, saying that Operation Gatekeeper breached the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man with a strategy that ensures the death of migrants. Action on the petition is pending.

Following her testimony in Geneva, Smith will speak about migrant deaths at the annual meeting of Amnesty International USA. Amnesty’s current campaign focusses on human rights violations in the United States.

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