CALEXICO, Calif. (AP) - 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 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."
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.