CBS's '60 Minutes' Highlights Illegal Immigrant 'Carnage' in All-American Canal

In wake of Arizona's new immigration law, CBS 60 Minutes anchor Scott Pelley fretted over illegal immigrants entering the United States by swimming across California's All-American Canal: "a national moat on our southern border, and hundreds of people have perished in its waters. It is a carnage that has gone mostly unnoticed because many of the victims are buried without their names." [Audio available here]

Pelley began the story by proclaiming: "In the California desert, in a field of mud, is a graveyard that is hard to imagine in America. Bricks mark the final resting place of hundreds of human beings, identities unknown. They died traveling to America in search of a life better than their home countries could offer." Moments later, Pelley explained: "While the canal is a death trap, it is also a lifeline for the nation....Two thirds of our winter fruits and vegetables are grown with this water. But half of the people who pick those crops are illegal immigrants. To get the jobs created by the canal, they cross the canal, usually at night on makeshift rafts or using plastic jugs for flotation."

It did not take long to for Pelley place blame for drownings, not on those crossing the border illegally, but on those operating the canal: "The water is 225 feet across, 20 feet deep, with almost no rescue lines or climb-out ladders, safety devices that you would find in some other canals....management is controlled by a regional authority called the Imperial Irrigation District....They've taken votes, commissioned studies, but done almost nothing."

Pelley grilled one of the authority directors, Stella Mendoza: "I wonder whether you feel the canal is safe?" Mendoza began to explain: "The canal is intended to convey water to the Imperial Valley via – from the – from the Colorado River. It's not intended as a – as a recreation and – and so we-" Pelley indignantly retorted: "We're not talking about recreation here. We're talking about people desperate to come into the United States and who are losing their lives in your canal."

Mendoza again attempted to express common sense: "When an individual decides to cross the desert, decides to cross the mountains, decides to jump into the canal to swim across, they're taking their life in their own hands. They have to be accountable for their actions." A brief time later, Pelley continued to portray Mendoza as uncaring: "There doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency here, if you see what I mean."

Early in the piece, Pelley found a token "life-long Republican" to bolster his case: "Dr. John Hunter showed us the hydroelectric dams, or drops, that catch most of the bodies. Hunter is an unlikely activist. He is a physicist and life-long Republican who has spent much of his career designing weapons for the U.S. government." Hunter declared: "I'm a very right-wing guy. I'm not a – an open border kind of person. I just don't believe we should let – be letting people drown in our backyards. It's – it's inhuman."

Pelley waited until the end of the story to reveal Hunter's full identity:

...in the 1990s, after scenes like this of immigrants rushing border stations, Congress beefed up the border, and a California congressman led the charge to build a better fence in San Diego....The fence channeled illegal immigrants away from the cities and rerouted them to the desert and the remote canal. Drownings rose rapidly from 6 in 1994 to more than 30 in 1998. That county cemetery we showed you earlier had to expand....Former Congressman Duncan Hunter says the fence is a success and now the canal should be made safer. The Congressman's brother, John Hunter, feels the unintended cost of the fence has been too high.

After springing that family connection on viewers, Pelley asked John Hunter: "I wonder whether any of this is family guilt that motivates you?"

Pelley concluded the segment by again talking to Mendoza and again portraying her as insensitive:

SCOTT PELLEY: The Imperial Irrigation District has recently started a year-long test of a single safety line. If the board votes to install the system that it's testing, it will still cover only a short stretch of the canal that's lined with concrete. So three-quarters of the canal would have no safety features?

MENDOZA: Correct.

PELLEY: And there's no plan for putting in safety features?

MENDOZA: Not at this time.

PELLEY: So it's not likely people are going to stop drowning in the canal?

MENDOZA: Probably.

Here is a transcript of relevant portions of the story:

7:04PM

SCOTT PELLEY: For the first time beginning this summer, police in Arizona will be able to stop anyone they like and order a check of their ID to determine whether the person is in the U.S. illegally. The new powers – just recently signed into law – have reignited the national debate on immigration. Since 9/11, getting into the United States has become a good deal harder and for some much more dangerous. With border enforcement increasing, many illegal immigrants are now attempting to cross one of this country's most important irrigation projects, called the All-American Canal. The canal has become sort of a national moat on our southern border, and hundreds of people have perished in its waters. It is a carnage that has gone mostly unnoticed because many of the victims are buried without their names.

In the California desert, in a field of mud, is a graveyard that is hard to imagine in America. Bricks mark the final resting place of hundreds of human beings, identities unknown. They died traveling to America in search of a life better than their home countries could offer. They rolled the dice in the underworld of human smuggling and lost. Their families back home never learned that their journey ended here in the All-American Canal. Where do they find the bodies?

JOHN HUNTER: Typically, they'll find them at the drops. And so for example, there's five of these big hydro drops here. Drop one, they found over a hundred bodies at drop one. Drop two, they had 60. Drop three, 60, etcetera.

PELLEY: Dr. John Hunter showed us the hydroelectric dams, or drops, that catch most of the bodies. Hunter is an unlikely activist. He is a physicist and life-long Republican who has spent much of his career designing weapons for the U.S. government.

HUNTER: I'm a very right-wing guy. I'm not a – an open border kind of person. I just don't believe we should let – be letting people drown in our backyards. It's – it's inhuman.

...

PELLEY: While the canal is a death trap, it is also a lifeline for the nation. It flows a length of 85 miles, just north of California's border with Mexico, transporting water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley. Two thirds of our winter fruits and vegetables are grown with this water. But half of the people who pick those crops are illegal immigrants. To get the jobs created by the canal, they cross the canal, usually at night on makeshift rafts or using plastic jugs for flotation. The water is 225 feet across, 20 feet deep, with almost no rescue lines or climb-out ladders, safety devices that you would find in some other canals. The All-American is owned by the federal government but its management is controlled by a regional authority called the Imperial Irrigation District. And for ten years, Hunter has been lobbying the elected members of the Irrigation District to add safety features. They've taken votes, commissioned studies, but done almost nothing.

...

PELLEY: One of the directors listening that day was Stella Mendoza, who's been with the Imperial Irrigation District, the IID, for 9 years.

STELLA MENDOZA: Is the IID supposed to save every individual that jumps into the canal? Is that – is that my role as a director?

PELLEY: Mendoza told us that she worries adding safety features like buoys, lines, or ladders would give illegal immigrants a false sense of security. I wonder whether you feel the canal is safe?

MENDOZA: The canal is intended to convey water to the Imperial Valley via – from the – from the Colorado River. It's not intended as a – as a recreation and – and so we-

PELLEY: We're not talking about recreation here. We're talking about people desperate to come into the United States-

MENDOZA: I – I understand that.

PELLEY: -and who are losing their lives in your canal.

MENDOZA: I understand that. When an individual decides to cross the desert, decides to cross the mountains, decides to jump into the canal to swim across, they're taking their life in their own hands. They have to be accountable for their actions.

PELLEY: In 2007, as the drownings continued, the board approved climb-out ladders along about one quarter of the canal's length. But they're spaced every 500 feet, a drowning man would be lucky to reach one.

...

PELLEY: There doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency here, if you see what I mean.

MENDOZA: I understand what you're saying.

...

PELLEY: In fact, crossing illegally is a Class B misdemeanor, same as loitering. But in the 1990s, after scenes like this of immigrants rushing border stations, Congress beefed up the border, and a California congressman led the charge to build a better fence in San Diego.

DUNCAN HUNTER: I'm Duncan Hunter. We built this double fence here at the Mexican border in San Diego, and reduced the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of people and tons of drugs by more than 90%. The fence works.

PELLEY: It did work. The fence channeled illegal immigrants away from the cities and rerouted them to the desert and the remote canal. Drownings rose rapidly from 6 in 1994 to more than 30 in 1998. That county cemetery we showed you earlier had to expand. There are now 850 bricks in the paupers graveyards, mostly people who drowned or perished in the desert. Former Congressman Duncan Hunter says the fence is a success and now the canal should be made safer. The Congressman's brother, John Hunter, feels the unintended cost of the fence has been too high. I wonder whether any of this is family guilt-

HUNTER: Well-

PELLEY: -that motivates you?

...

PELLEY: The Imperial Irrigation District has recently started a year-long test of a single safety line. If the board votes to install the system that it's testing, it will still cover only a short stretch of the canal that's lined with concrete. So three-quarters of the canal would have no safety features?

MENDOZA: Correct.

PELLEY: And there's no plan for putting in safety features?

MENDOZA: Not at this time.

PELLEY: So it's not likely people are going to stop drowning in the canal?

MENDOZA: Probably.
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC