This is a local story with national implications.
The lawsuit claims federal border policy forced the immigrants to enter through a treacherous desert area southwest of Tucson known to have little water and that Humane Borders was refused permission to place a water station "in the exact area" where the crossers died.
The lawsuit, filed April 30 in U.S. District Court in Tucson, seeks about $3 million for the families of each of the victims for damages including pain, suffering, grief and expenses.
The border crossers spent five days trekking across the desert in temperatures of more than 110 degrees. The U.S. Border Patrol found the first survivors on May 23, 2001.
The day after the incident, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area placed seven Humane Borders flags marking wildlife water stations migrants could use.
That decision showed the government felt placing water in the desert for people would save lives, said James Metcalf, one of three attorneys who filed the lawsuit.
"They've got all kinds of critters. They also seem to have some human beings running around out there. These folks are still human beings who die at alarming frequencies, and they're aware of that," he said.
By allowing water stations in areas where it formerly prohibited them and by setting up emergency call boxes to save the lives of illegal entrants in the desert, the government has acknowledged people need help to make the journey, he said.
"The government doesn't assume responsibility unless they in fact have one," Metcalf said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which represents the United States in all civil claims, will make no official comment, said Michael Johns, an agency spokesman.
Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, said his group had filed for permission to set up the water station two months before the deadly desert crossing attempt. The filing was rejected, Hoover said, because of concerns for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope.
In a 2001 letter to Humane Borders, Donald Tiller, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, said his agency decided to reject the group's request to set up a water station because "the use has been determined to be non-compatible with the goals, objectives and purposes of the refuge."
"Then on May 23, they picked up 14 dead bodies," Hoover said. "On May 24, we reapplied, and subsequently they had marked seven of their existing wildlife water stations with our flags and poles we had provided to them."
The purpose of the lawsuit is not to force a change of U.S. border policy, Metcalf said. "I think we would certainly argue factually that some of those policy discretions contributed to the deaths, but it wouldn't be appropriate to try to compel the federal government to change its policies."
The multimillion-dollar lawsuit to benefit families of people who entered the country illegally is wrong, said Wes Bramhall, president of Arizonans for Immigration Control, a Tucson group that advocates support of the Border Patrol and more stringent border policy.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "These people knew what they were doing. They knew they were breaking the law."
He said money, rather than concern for the victims' families, is the motivation for the lawsuit.
"They're doing it for the money, period," he said. "How much do you think the families are going to get? Half maybe?"
Workers for a Florida farm labor contracting company have been sentenced to prison in connection with the fatal journey.
In April, Joel Viveros-Flores, a former foreman at Vazquez Harvesting, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Phoenix to 18 months in prison.
His boss, Francisco Vazquez-Torres, the owner of Vazquez Harvesting, was sentenced on April 4 to 6 1/2 years in prison and fined $125,000.
Jesus Lopez Ramos, one of the guides for the illegal border crossers, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in February 2002.
* Contact reporter Michael Marizco at 573-4213 or at email@example.com.
I'm not sure I understand this.
If somebody hijacks my car and crashes it, killing himself, it's not my fault, is it?
Is the US obliged to make it easier for people to cross over? And wouldn't making it easier to cross over encourage more people to try.. and lead to more deaths?
Wouldn't it be a better plan to actually guard the borders, have several UAV's monitoring the area and intercept the immigrants? Grab them, fingerprent them, hand them a glass of water, a sandwich, and send them home....