Livelihoods washed away by toxic spill in Sonora

In Banámichi, Sonora, Ana Maria Díaz wrestles a 5-gallon jug of water while redistributing the home’s supply of drinking water into gallon jugs. For days after the spill, many residents continued to drink water from contaminated wells. Photo by Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star.

BANÁMICHI, Sonora — Everything here comes from the river.

The water rushes along both sides of the lush green mountains teaming with ocotillo, mesquite trees, and even some organ pipe cactus. It is life to the towns in the Sonora valley.

Lydia Díaz had a good life here. The river provided her family’s cows with water to drink and grass to eat, offering her four teenage children their fill of milk every day — a whole liter at a time if they wanted that much.

She didn’t need to buy groceries — with the river’s help, the corn, beans, squash and green beans the family planted in a nearby field grew plentiful enough to feed all six of them.

She and her husband had jobs. Díaz cleaned the town’s swimming pool and her husband, Adolfo Escalante, worked the fields for the Lopez brothers, a local family that plants peanuts and runs a cattle business.

But all of that is gone.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

In reversal, death rate of border crossers down

Traci Van Deest, a forensic anthropology postdoctoral fellow, takes inventory of a set of remains found July 5 near Ajo. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office handles more border-crosser bones than any other coroner’s office in the nation. Photo by Mamta Potat/Arizona Daily Star.

After a decade of deadly summers, both the number and the rate of border crossers dying in the Arizona desert are down.

The total number of people crossing through the Tucson Sector has been on the decline for several years. But the ratio of crossers who died on the journey had continued to rise.

That’s no longer the case. As of Aug. 31, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner reported 112 sets of remains found, a rate of 13.5 deaths per 10,000 apprehensions for this fiscal year, which ends Tuesday. That’s down from 178 sets of remains found last year, a rate of 14.7 deaths per 10,000 apprehensions last year.

Nearly 2,300 sets of remains of unauthorized border crossers have been found in Southern Arizona since 2001 — making the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner the busiest in the nation for border-crosser remains.

As the Border Patrol made it tougher to cross through major urban areas such as El Paso and San Diego in the 1990s, traffic started to shift to the Southern Arizona desert. Officials thought the area’s remoteness and rugged environment would be a natural deterrent, but it simply meant smugglers and border crossers started traveling through harsher terrain for longer periods of time.

As Arizona has added Border Patrol agents in recent years, Texas has become the busiest for crossers.

But that hasn’t slowed the pace at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, which continues its efforts to identify remains found. The office has partnered with groups such as the Colibri Center for Human Rights and Humane Borders to help families find their loved ones as well as to map and share data on the remains the office examines.

Even with dedicated efforts, more than 700 remains have not been identified.

As the fiscal year comes to a close, the Star talked with Medical Examiner Greg Hess about what his office has seen over the last decade.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

More border crossers fled in 2013 compared with 2012

Border Patrol agents apprehended a smaller share of border crossers here and across the Southwest in fiscal 2013 than in the previous year, as more of them turned back to Mexico or got away, the agency’s data show.

The increase was particularly stark in the number of “got aways,” crossers who were spotted but not caught. The size of that group jumped 68 percent, from 22,000 to 37,000, in the Tucson Sector. A similar increase was seen across the Southwest, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The federal government took a year to respond to the Star’s request for information.

Apprehensions from 2012 to 2013 rose less than 1 percent in the Tucson Sector and 16 percent in all nine sectors of the Southwest.

There are limitations to the data, including inconsistencies as to how each sector records those who got away and those who turned back and the possibility of someone being counted more than once. But it’s the current way that the agency measures border security, together with number of apprehensions.

Agency officials, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, have said the numbers are reliable enough to assess each sector’s progress and to help determine resource deployment.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

When it rains, Sanz is called to action

Vicente Sanz, left, the chief of the civil protection unit in Nogales, Sonora, takes the hand of a man who was rescued by firefighters there on Wednesday. The man’s vehicle had stalled in a flooded street. The city received constant rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Odile. Photo by Mamta Potat/Arizona Daily Star,

NOGALES, Sonora — Anytime storm clouds loom above the hills surrounding this border town, Vicente Sanz knows it’s going to be a long night.

As head of the civil protection unit for the city of more than 220,000 people, he is in charge of coordinating with emergency personnel, including police and firefighters, the military and the mayor.

The 38-year-old father of three is a firefighter at heart. He wanted to be one since he was a kid.

Always wanted to help

At 14, he spent time with the Nogales Fire Department as a visitor, hanging out and observing. Two years later, with his parents’ permission, he became a volunteer firefighter. The city’s volunteer ranks number 78 people assisting 32 paid firefighters.

Sanz, a lawyer by trade, became head of emergency management in 2012.

But on days like last Wednesday, when the skies turn gray and angry, his instincts as a first responder kick in.

The remnants of tropical depression Odile were supposed to strike starting at about 5 p.m., with rains projected throughout the night and into Thursday.

The forecast called for nearly 3 inches of rain.

For a city such as Nogales, built in the low-lying reaches of the Arroyo Los Nogales, even 1 inch of rain can be disastrous for the residents.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Immigration hearings slowed by technical glitches, remote sites

Technology is supposed to help an already overwhelmed immigration court system speed up the cases of the youths and families who crossed the border this year, but technical glitches and the location of some detention centers continue to bog down the process.

Heidy, a Honduran asylum seeker who was caught by the Border Patrol in South Texas in June, testified from Artesia, New Mexico, last week about the beatings and insults she received from her husband. But her answers were often interrupted so an interpreter nearly 2,000 miles away in Arlington, Virginia, could hear everything she said and repeat it in English.

The Star observed two asylum hearings and one bond hearing Sept. 4 and 5 in Artesia. Over a two-day period, the bond hearing was postponed because the pro-bono lawyer sent documents to the wrong address, respondents were often asked to repeat themselves because the audio was not working properly, and a judge had to be reminded to point the camera at herself instead of at the audience in Virginia.

As the number of immigration cases continues to soar, the Executive Office for Immigration Review has increasingly relied on video teleconference to conduct hearings.

It routinely uses the technology, said Kathryn Mattingly, an agency spokeswoman, to “improve the efficiency of the immigration court process and to more effectively manage its resources.”

About 230 immigration judges in 59 courtrooms have a backlog of 400,000 cases, according to the latest data from the Transactional Access Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University in New York state.

Video teleconference, Mattingly said in an email, provides coverage to locations where the office doesn’t have a physical presence and gives judges more flexibility to assist with cases in busier courts.

The technology helps cut back on judges’ travel time, allowing them to hear more cases, said Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

But there has to be a balance between efficiency and the quality of the hearing experience, she said, and it’s still a work in progress to figure out where that balance is.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.