When access to the U.S. through urban areas was made difficult by Border Patrol operations in the mid-'90s, migrants began crossing through more dangerous terrain, which in San Diego meant East County. One exposure death occurred in the county in 1994, 4 in '95, 27 in '96, and 29 in 1999. The El Centro sector had similar increases, while the Tucson sector -- the most dangerous -- had ten times the number. And these numbers have risen. Fiscal year 2005 saw 473 migrant deaths, the highest so far, with 216 within the Tucson sector. Between October 1, 2005, and the beginning of August 2006 about 350 have died, about a quarter from heat exposure and slightly more than a third from drowning and in motor vehicle incidents. These numbers have risen even though the Patrol has beefed up its efforts to help migrants in trouble. The Border Patrol's figures indicate a record of 2570 migrant rescues in fiscal year 2005, nearly double the number of 2004.
Since the start of Operation Gatekeeper, the official death count is slightly over 4000. Human-rights workers say the number is closer to 11,000, that hundreds of bodies in the desert have never been found though the Border Patrol and human-rights volunteers regularly search the desert. More than half of recorded fatalities occur in Arizona, and about half of those die of heat exposure. Others might die in the desert from heart attacks, snakebites, accidents, a variety of causes that would never have occurred if the victims hadn't been trying to cross the desert.
Recently, the number of deaths from heat exposure has decreased as more agents are stationed along the border. But traffic fatalities involving migrants have more than doubled since 2003 as coyotes, or polleros -- the guides leading migrants across the border -- try other methods. On August 7, nine migrants died in a crash in the Yuma sector when the driver of a Chevrolet Suburban -- in which 21 Mexicans were "stacked like cordwood" -- lost control after crossing a Border Patrol spike strip at high speed. This year the number killed in traffic accidents during illegal crossings is about 50.
My interest in an issue so polarized was to reduce my focus to a single drink of water, the water needed to keep a person from dying in the desert. Yet even that single drink isn't free from politics, since volunteer border-protection groups such as the Minutemen have called putting out water aiding and abetting a criminal activity. Officially, the Border Patrol permits the water stations, although for me such statements are now filtered through the unofficial claim: "They're horrible people."
The head of Border Angels is Enrique Morones, a 49-year-old radio talk-show host and former Padres executive who was born in San Diego. His parents moved here from Mexico in 1954.
When I told my friend Rex, a part-time radio journalist, that I wanted to talk to Enrique, he mildly cautioned me, "He's a walking sound bite," meaning I'd hear nothing that Enrique hadn't said to a thousand others. Duly warned, I called Enrique, who was in Mexico City talking with the Mexican foreign minister about human-rights issues, and we agreed to meet at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, July 8, downtown at Pantoja Park on G Street, then we would go out and "put water in the canyons." I had no idea what this meant. Later, when I told Enrique of my friend's remark, he said, "We have to have sound bites just like the Republicans have."
On Saturday, Enrique was in a rush to meet a small group at the University of San Diego who wanted to accompany us. I left my rental car at his condo and climbed into a dark blue Ford Explorer decorated inside and out with bumper stickers attacking the war and racism and an Aztlan bumper sticker supporting Chicano nationalism. Enrique described that particular sticker as a joke and said he didn't support the return of land lost in the Mexican defeat of 1848. This is political teasing. He flaunts the bumper sticker because it upsets the Minutemen, among others. Otherwise, the SUV serves as his office and is crammed with papers, Border Angel T-shirts, flyers, disposable cameras, health bar wrappers, and a Bible.
"I think I lost my address book," he said. "I thought it was under my seat."
Enrique is a big man with graying black hair, a "former athlete with two blown knees" cresting 225 pounds who speaks of the need to get back in shape. He has a squarish, soft face, dark eyes with a yellowish tint, and a mealsack body, but in his movements he reminded me of the Boston slugger Manny Ramirez, a muscular slouch and ducked head so he looks up at you from under his eyebrows and then looks away. He ran track and cross-country at USD, where he studied international marketing, then transferred to San Diego State, from which he graduated in 1979. Afterward he played soccer and football in local leagues and ran for the San Diego Track Club. He received an M.A. degree in executive leadership from USD in 2002.
Enrique never gives a short answer. Articulate and fast-talking, he presented me with a steady wall of sound. His sentences were like extended press releases, many quoted verbatim from his website, and most devoid of personal commentary, though he is proud of the important people he has met and what he has done. Behind the rapid-fire talk, he struck me as a shy man who used his work to obscure his shyness, as if he would like to change himself from a human being, beset by frailty and difficulty, into a sort of civic statue. On the driver's visor was a photograph of his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie, who is a missionary in Latin America. They broke up over two years ago, but Enrique has been trying to get her back. "The hardest thing," he said, "is not to spread myself too thin. That's what my doctor has told me and my girlfriend too. I try to do too many things. But so many things are blossoming it's hard to stop and arrange them properly. I expect I need to focus more. It's such a big issue I can get distracted by different parts. All the time something comes up. I meant to work on the plane and ended up talking to the person next to me, telling him about what I'm doing and the Border Angels. But I don't believe in coincidences. There's nothing that doesn't happen for a reason."