The families of 11 immigrants who died illegally crossing into Arizona from Mexico have filed a $41 million claim against two federal agencies, saying the government's refusal to put water out in the desert contributed to the migrants' deaths.
The action filed against the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asks for $3.75 million for each of the deceased, whose bodies were found last year in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge between Tucson and Yuma.
Attorneys for survivors of the deceased said that U.S. Border Patrol policies had shut down more populous portions of the Arizona border and forced illegal aliens to enter through more remote areas.
"What these agencies knew — or should have known — is that by doing this, and with a history of deaths in the desert, these people would cross in these dangerous areas," said A. James Clark, one of the two Yuma lawyers filing the claim. "It would have cost the government nothing to put water stations in, as it had done in other locations."
The claim says the agencies rejected a request made shortly before the deaths by the Tucson humanitarian group Humane Borders to place 60-gallon water stations in the refuge, as it has done in other parts of the desert.
"The agency was on notice that death or serious injury would likely occur," the claim states. "The denial of the agency was based upon concern over animal habitat, which outweighed human life. This decision ran contrary to the stated mission objective of the agency, which is to protect human life on its property."
The claim, which must show the existence of injury and ask for damages, is the first step to a lawsuit under federal law. If unanswered within 180 days, the claim can then become a lawsuit.
A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, N.M., which oversees the refuge, acknowledged that his agency received the request for water stations last year.
"But of those places they requested to place water stations, none of them would have helped the poor people who perished there," said spokesman Tom Bauer. "In fact, the closest proposed water area for a water station was 12 miles and two mountain ranges away from where the migrants were found dead."
He added that the smugglers who were leading illegal immigrants through the more remote areas were "duping" their clients.
Several unmarked watering holes established by the government, supplied by 10,000-gallon tanks, are placed around the refuge, part of an effort to maintain the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, an endangered species.
"It is criminal that these smugglers are taking people on to that range," said Mr. Bauer, who added that 30-foot poles have been erected at some of the water holes on the refuge.
"The water has been out there for several years," Mr. Bauer. "Our idea is to mark where the water holes are as a humane gesture."
Fourteen persons died in May 2001 when smugglers led the immigrants into an area of the refuge known as the "Devil's Path" near the Mexican border.
The refuge is an 860,000-acre expanse with the closest major highway — Interstate 8 — 300 miles north of the border. Cabeza Prieta abuts a military range and offers little shade. Signs warn visitors that ground temperatures in summer can exceed 130 degrees.
In the past three years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that more than 1,000 migrants have died of various causes trying to cross into the United States.
One of the smugglers for the deceased named in the claim, Jose Lopez-Ramos, received a 16-year sentence for his role in the deaths earlier this year.
Lopez-Ramos was one of three guides working for a smuggling ring that led a group of about 30 illegal immigrants from Sonoita, Mexico, into the United States on May 19.
Each immigrant paid the smugglers $1,400 for the illegal crossing. They were told the trip would take two days and that they would walk at night to avoid detection and the searing desert sun.
The group got lost and ran out of water during the second day, Lopez-Ramos told authorities. One guide and three immigrants turned back and returned to Mexico.