LOS ANGELES – On May 14 of last year, 14 illegal aliens died while crossing a stretch of the Arizona desert. Now their families blame the U.S. government for those deaths, and are asking for a payment of more than $41 million.
The reason: Attorneys for the families argue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department should have put drinking water stations in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where many of the crossings are known to occur.
"They owe a duty to human beings that enter onto the lands that they manage," according to Jim Metcalf, an attorney for the families of the Mexicans who died. "They knew there was a danger present to these individuals that could be remedied by very minimal measures to save human life."
Government officials won't comment on the claim, except to say they were never asked to put water stations where the migrants died.
But others say the idea of putting out aid stations for illegal aliens is simply ridiculous.
"This is sort of the case of someone stealing your car and then suing you because the brakes aren't good," said Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigrant Rights. "These are people who are, number one, breaking the law; and number two, placing their own lives in jeopardy."
Family attorneys say the success of the U.S. Border Patrol blocked safe entries into the United States and forced the migrants onto remote, more dangerous areas. Government supporters point out that all illegal border crossings are dangerous.
"There is no safe way to enter the United States illegally, no matter how much water you have out there," said Mike McGlasson, of the U.S. Border Patrol.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has six months to respond to the families' claim.
A successful suit could be costly to taxpayers and perhaps force the government to either make the border safer, or make it so difficult that almost no one will try to cross.
The issue of illegal migration across the Southwest U.S. border with Mexico has been a longstanding issue between the two countries. The Bush administration has acted to tighten security along its border since Sept. 11, and has vowed to devote more resources to the problem.