SUV in crash where 13 died came through hole in border fence

California To Spend $28m To Help Arriving Asylum Seekers
Moises Castillo

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2018, file photo, Honduran asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents after the group crossed the U.S. border wall into San Diego, in California, seen from Tijuana, Mexico. The state of California is freeing up to $28 million to help asylum-seekers released in the U.S. with notices to appear in court with hotels, medical screenings, and transportation. California's generosity is a stark contrast to Arizona and Texas, where border state officials have challenged and sharply criticized President Joe Biden's immigration policies.

HOLTVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Thirteen people killed in one of the deadliest crashes involving migrants sneaking into the U.S. had entered California through a hole cut into the border fence with Mexico in what was believed to be a larger smuggling operation, officials said Wednesday.

Surveillance video showed a Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban drive through the opening early Tuesday, said Gregory Bovino, the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector chief.

The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the U.S. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.

The Expedition crammed with 25 people continued on, and a tractor-trailer struck it a short time later. Ten of the 13 killed in that crash have been identified as Mexican citizens.

The Border Patrol said its agents were not pursuing the vehicle before the wreck. The opening in the fence was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the crash in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley, a major farming region now at the height of a harvest that provides much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to U.S. supermarkets.

It was made of steel bollards that were built before former President Donald Trump blanketed much of the border with taller barriers that go deeper into the ground. Photos show a panel of eight steel poles was lifted out and left on the ground in the desert next to an old tire and other debris.

“Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life,” Bovino said. “Those who may be contemplating crossing the border illegally should pause to think of the dangers that all too often end in tragedy, tragedies our Border Patrol Agents and first responders are unfortunately very familiar with.”

The breach occurred in a busy area for illegal crossings near the Imperial Sand Dunes where migrants often climb over an aging barrier and wait for drivers to pick them up, hoping to avoid the scrutiny of Border Patrol agents at checkpoints on highways leading to Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.

A pandemic-related measure that allows the Border Patrol to expel people without an opportunity to seek asylum potentially leads some to try to evade authorities instead of surrendering, sometimes with fatal consequences. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention introduced expulsion powers nearly a year ago under Trump, and the Biden administration has signaled no plans to lift them anytime soon.

The cause of Tuesday’s collision wasn’t yet known, authorities said. The Expedition is built to hold eight people safely, but smugglers are known to pack people into vehicles in extremely unsafe conditions to maximize their profits.

Seats in the SUV had been removed except for those for the driver and front passenger, said Omar Watson, chief of the California Highway Patrol’s border division.