A government agency on the front lines of the immigration debate has begun installing lifesaving buoys in a fast-moving canal along the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants drown each year as they sneak into the country illegally.
The debate over the lifelines has long presented authorities with a moral dilemma: Is it acceptable to do nothing when so many immigrants are dying in the water? Or do lifesaving devices lull immigrants into a false sense of security that they can conquer the channel while giving them extra motivation to enter the country illegally?
The agency that manages the canal had waffled on those questions as board members worried aloud that the buoys would encourage illegal immigration. But the Imperial Irrigation District reversed course in August and has been bolting 105 lines across the 82-mile desert canal at a cost of $1.1 million. Crews are also planting 1,414 bilingual signs on canal banks that read, “Warning: Dangerous Water.”
The canal can pose extreme danger to people trying to swim across. Currents moving at 25 mph to 30 mph can be no match for immigrants who can’t swim. The decomposing corpses of immigrants rise to the surface bloated with gases after days underwater expanding like balloons.
More than 500 people have drowned in the All-American Canal since the waterway was built in 1942 to bring Colorado River water to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. Twelve people died in 2009. The death toll peaked at 31 in 1998 after a Border Patrol crackdown in San Diego pushed migrants to cross in remote areas.
Migrants interviewed at a shelter across the border in Mexicali, Mexico, said the buoy lines will have little impact on whether people cross the canal.
Juan Avalos swam across the canal in 2001 and 2004 and planned to do it again sometime this month with a few friends. They will use a ladder or rope to climb over a nearby border fence before plunging into the canal.
“Anyone who knows how to swim really well is going to be fine,” said Avalos, 40. “Anyone who doesn’t swim that well may have problems. It’s easy for me.”
The configuration of the buoys was controversial.
Some wanted the lines placed at 45-degree angles and pointed downstream toward Mexico. That way, anyone who grabbed a line would be pushed by the currents away from the U.S. and back to Mexico.
The angled buoy plan was eventually scrapped in a victory for John Hunter, a suburban San Diego physicist who has been the leading advocate for the buoys.
The irrigation district made the decision to install the buoys after board member Stella Mendoza faced withering criticism following the “60 Minutes” report. She was quoted as saying more people were likely to die without changes in a canal that some have dubbed “the most dangerous body of water in the U.S.”