Border Fires Offer Migrants Deadly Opportunity The second-largest wildfire in Southern California is still burning out of control along the U.S.-Mexico border. That's giving illegal immigrants a unique opportunity to cross the border at abandoned stations — but it could also mean death.
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NPR's Alex Chadwick and 'Los Angeles Times' reporter Richard Marosi discuss immigrants using the fires as a diversion.

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Border Fires Offer Migrants Deadly Opportunity

NPR's Alex Chadwick and 'Los Angeles Times' reporter Richard Marosi discuss immigrants using the fires as a diversion.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

After wildfires in California this week burned nearly 770 square miles, there is some good news. Here's Bill Pollack of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services.

Mr. BILL POLLACK (San Diego County Office of Emergency Services): Things are winding down. We're still not out of the woods yet. There's still a lot of work to be done.

CHADWICK: And coming up, we'll ride along with some of the folks doing that work, the people assessing the damage in charred neighborhoods around San Diego.

COHEN: But first, the effects of the fire a bit farther South on the U.S.-Mexico border. A blaze there became such a threat that the Border Patrol evacuated the area, and that created a unique, but potentially lethal opportunity for illegal immigrants to cross into the U.S.

Since then, Border Patrol agents found four charred bodies in what's believed to be a migrant camp. Examiners are still trying to determine who these people were and what caused their deaths.

Richard Marosi wrote about the fire on the border in today's Los Angeles Times. He spent the past few days in the area known as Tecate.

Mr. RICHARD MAROSI (Los Angeles Times): It's a very mountainous, very rugged area that is very difficult to patrol. You have a lot of Border Patrol out there on these very steep mountain roads and sometimes perched up on hillsides. But it's a very difficult area to patrol and it's very active with illegal activity. It's very difficult for migrants to cross in cities these days, especially over into San Diego. So they head to the hills, and the Tecate area is a very popular crossing point.

COHEN: Last weekend officials closed and locked the gates to the official U.S. entry point there in Tecate, but as you wrote, that lock didn't stay on for very long, did it?

Mr. MAROSI: No. Apparently within minutes, somebody cut through the lock.

COHEN: Do you have any sense of how many people crossing the border during that time were people with the legal right to be here trying to get back home, and how many saw this as an opportunity to get across the border without authorities watching?

Mr. MAROSI: It's really difficult to know. I talked to people out there who said that probably it was mostly U.S. residents, a lot of whom were visiting Tecate as they do on weekends frequently and they leave their cars parked on the U.S. side. Many of them went through the parking lots and got their cars and drove them back into Mexico, away from the flames. But other people say that some folks went right through the parking lots, through the gas stations, and kept going.

COHEN: Richard, how dangerous was it to try to cross the border at this time while these fires were raging?

Mr. MAROSI: It was extremely dangerous. The Harris Fire, which has burned 84,000 acres, started right near the port of entry, probably just a few miles away, headed over a hill and right down toward the port of entry. A man died trying to protect his house up there on the hill and four firefighters were injured.

Yesterday, four bodies of suspected illegal immigrants were also found in the area. So this is one of the hardest hit areas in all of the wildfires. The inspectors saw the flames coming and decided to leave the area.

COHEN: What do you think was going through the minds of these people if they see - you know, obviously you can see the smoke, you know that there is a fire there, but this presents an opportunity. How do you think they went about making that choice?

Mr. MAROSI: Well, some of them probably didn't think twice because they've been trying to cross in many treacherous areas before, and they just saw this as just another risk. The alternatives are crossing the desert in Arizona, which takes three, four days; many people die. And so they figured, hey, it's just another risk. There's nobody here out. I'll give it a shot.

COHEN: The picture that goes along with your story is a picture of a 15-year-old boy and the caption says stuck in Mexico. They've closed this point of entry once again at Tecate. What's happening to people who might have the right to be here but are now stuck on the other side?

Mr. MAROSI: Yeah. Like you say, they're stuck on the other side. They can go or drive over through Tijuana and get across there, but Highway 94 remains closed, so they have trouble getting to their homes near Tecate, and can't get to their cars or whatever they had over on this side, so many of them are still waiting out there in Tecate.

What has happened is many people — they go up to the gate and in the time that I was there, I saw people being handed things like medication and legal papers because life goes on and they're trying to get things that they need past across the border, which wouldn't be a problem in ordinary situations.

COHEN: Los Angeles Times staff writer Richard Marosi, thank you so much.

Mr. MAROSI: Thank you.

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