CALEXICO, Calif. – 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."
There was scant discussion about the sudden change of heart, but the catalyst appears to be a CBS "60 Minutes" report that portrayed the agency as indifferent and callous on the buoy issue.
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.
Imperial County supervising deputy coroner Charles Lucas said the bodies are found in "pretty horrendous" condition, so decomposed that they can't be recognized. Migrants who drown and are never claimed by their families are buried in the no-stoplight town of Holtville. There are about 400 graves at the back of the town's cemetery, made of single bricks and often engraved "John Doe."
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.
The canal is entirely in the United States but hugs the border, at one stretch only about 50 yards from the border fence.
"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."
Last time, Avalos swam across with one hand held high, carrying dry clothes. After crossing, he walked more than a day to hop a freight train to Fresno, where he had a friend pick him up.
Benito Ramirez crossed the canal in 2005 by grabbing a car tire with five other migrants and paddling with one hand as the current took them 30 yards downstream. He also once saw a Border Patrol agent save a woman who was drowning in the canal.
"We're looking for the American dream," said Ramirez, 26. "We left behind our families, our communities. The goal for many is to work in the United States."
The next time Ramirez crosses the border, he plans to do it by land because his brother is uneasy about swimming through the treacherous canal. They believe the trek is worth it, regardless of how they get here; relatives tell them jobs are waiting at Nebraska meatpacking plants and that Pennsylvania homes and businesses need gardeners.
The agency began installing buoy lines every half-mile along a 23-mile concrete-lined portion of the canal in September, each one with 30 orange balls. The lines will be a mile apart along the 59-mile earthen section by March. The concrete section is more dangerous because water moves faster there.
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.
Hunter, whose brother Duncan pushed for tougher immigration enforcement as a U.S. congressman, argued that the angled lines would only be more deadly for migrants who are determined to make it across. The lines are being placed straight across.
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."
"It would be wrong to say that coverage didn't contribute to the decision," said agency spokesman Kevin Kelley.
The San Diego County Water Authority, which gets water from the canal, is balking at pleas to help shoulder the cost of the buoys.
"It is a very difficult equation to come up with the right approach to this to improve human safety without going too far as to make it appealing to jump in," said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager for the San Diego County agency.
Maria Contreras buried her son last year after he tried to swim across the canal. Her athletic son was preparing to graduate high school and get married when she last saw him.
"Don't do it," she said as she fought tears in the living room of her Mexicali home. "It's very sad to lose a child. You can't get over it. All those dreams are cut short."
Queneret's body showed up two days after he drowned, his back pressed against a gate that catches debris flowing into one of the Imperial Irrigation District's hydroelectric plants. According to the coroner's report, family members told authorities that he helped smuggle illegal immigrants.
The body was so badly decomposed that it couldn't be identified with fingerprints. Authorities showed his mother some jewelry they recovered, including an earring stud with a marijuana leaf. She claimed his body on his 20th birthday.