Fig­ures point to se­curer bor­der, but risk of death for il­le­gals high

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY STEPHEN DINAN

TUC­SON, ARIZ. | Amid all of the ap­par­ently good news about se­cu­rity along the U.s.-mex­ico bor­der in Ari­zona, one dark spot stands out: The num­ber of peo­ple dy­ing in the desert as they at­tempt to make il­le­gal cross­ings re­mains stub­bornly high.

It’s a fig­ure that wor­ries and puz­zles both hu­man­i­tar­ian aid groups and or­ga­ni­za­tions that want to see a crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

For some, it calls into ques­tion the Bor­der Pa­trol’s own ar­rest fig­ures, while for oth­ers it sug­gests agents are do­ing their job too well, and the heav­ier se­cu­rity is push­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants into ever-more re­mote ar­eas — which means each il­le­gal crosser faces a greater chance of dy­ing.

“If most Amer­i­cans were to watch on TV that there was some coun­try where ev­ery year at least 200 to 500 re­mains are be­ing found in these hor­ri­ble deaths, dy­ing in these hor­ri­ble ways, we’d think that’s bar­baric,” said

Kat Ro­driguez, pro­gram di­rec­tor at the Coa­li­cion de Dere­chos Hu­manos, which keeps sta­tis­tics on such deaths.

“But the re­al­ity is, that’s hap­pen­ing in the U.S. These peo­ple are dy­ing, and there’s a con­nec­tion be­tween these deaths and our poli­cies,” she said.

In­deed, the death rate — which Ms. Ro­driguez de­fines as the num­ber of bod­ies found per 100,000 il­le­gal im­mi­grants caught by the Bor­der Pa­trol — has sky­rock­eted.

In 2004, the Bor­der Pa­trol ap­pre­hended 589,831 il­le­gal im­mi­grants in the two sec­tors that com­prise Ari­zona’s bor­der with Mex­ico. That same year, Dere­chos Hu­manos re­ported 234 deaths, for a rate of about 40 deaths per 100,000 ap­pre­hen­sions.

Last year, ap­pre­hen­sions in those two sec­tors dropped to 129,118 il­le­gal im­mi­grants. But 183 bod­ies were re­cov­ered, for a death rate of more than 140 per 100,000 ap­pre­hen­sions.

Cal­cu­lat­ing life and death

One of the chief prob­lems with the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate is that no­body knows how many il­le­gal im­mi­grants are in the U.S., nor how many try to cross the bor­der each year.

The best au­thor­i­ties can do is point to the num­ber of crossers ap­pre­hended each year by the Bor­der Pa­trol. Of­fi­cials used to use a rule of thumb that for ev­ery per­son ap­pre­hended, an­other three or four suc­cess­fully evaded cap­ture and made it through.

The re­cent de­cline in ap­pre­hen­sions would sug­gest fewer peo­ple are try­ing to en­ter the U.S.

But the fact that deaths have re­mained high could mean that traf­fic has shifted to dif­fer­ent ar­eas, but re­mains steady.

Still, the drop in ap­pre­hen­sions must mean some­thing pos­i­tive on the bor­der, said Steven A. Ca­marota, re­search di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, which ad­vo­cates for stricter im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment and lower lim­its.

“It seems pretty clear that the num­ber of peo­ple try­ing to cross the bor­der is down sig­nif­i­cantly,” he said. “Quan­ti­fy­ing it is very hard. But that doesn’t mean the change we’ve seen does not re­flect an un­der­ly­ing change.”

The bor­der makes for an ex­tra­or­di­nary lab­o­ra­tory to study cause and ef­fect.

Smug­glers study the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion and quickly ad­just. New fenc­ing and stepped-up en­force­ment in Cal­i­for­nia in the 1990s pushed the flow of peo­ple and drugs into Ari­zona, and stronger en­force­ment near the bor­der towns there pushed the il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity out into re­mote fed­eral lands, such as Cabeza Pri­eta Na­tional Wildlife Refuge or the Coron­ado Na­tional For­est.

That seemed to lead to a spike in deaths about a decade ago, and the rate has re­mained high ever since, peak­ing at 282 deaths, ac­cord­ing to Dere­chos Hu­manos. The Ari­zona Star, a daily pa­per based in Tuc­son, has its own count, which dif­fers slightly when com­pared year to year, but fol­lows the same trend.

Bet­ter se­cu­rity

The se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion im­proved as the Bor­der Pa­trol be­gan to pour man­power and re­sources into Ari­zona, first un­der the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and con­tin­u­ing un­der Pres­i­dent Obama.

Fenc­ing or ve­hi­cle bar­ri­ers now rule along much of the state’s bor­der, and tech­nol­ogy has helped speed the Bor­der Pa­trol’s abil­ity to de­tect and re­act to in­cur­sions.

That has led the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­clare the bor­der more se­cure than at any other time in re­cent his­tory.

The Bor­der Pa­trol’s lead­ers on the ground say the im­prove­ments have been dra­matic.

“There’s a lot of de­bate on the state of the bor­der. [Peo­ple] that have been out here be­fore [know], it’s a nigh­tand-day com­par­i­son to what the bor­der was,” said Manuel Padilla Jr., deputy chief agent for the Bor­der Pa­trol’s Tuc­son sec­tor.

With ap­pre­hen­sions down, the Bor­der Pa­trol last year de­cided it was time to fo­cus on try­ing to re­duce the death rate. Of­fi­cials be­gan to run public ser­vice an­nounce­ments and con­duct press in­ter­views in coun­tries that send the most il­le­gal im­mi­grants across the bor­der, warn­ing of the hard­ships of mak­ing such a cross­ing.

“We started bring­ing in the con­sular of­fi­cers from those coun­tries. That was the big­gest push on this, be­cause they ac­tu­ally helped us frame the mes­sage that would have the big­gest im­pact into those states and into those coun­tries,” Chief Padilla said.

Some ads warned of the dan­gers of vi­o­lence, but con­sular of­fi­cials told the Bor­der Pa­trol that mes­sage didn’t play as well in places such as El Sal­vador be­cause vi­o­lence isn’t out of the norm in their home coun­tries. The pitch to those coun­tries was changed to fo­cus in­stead on the harsh­ness of the ter­rain and the chance of get­ting lost or left be­hind, Chief Padilla said.

He said they are see­ing some sig­nals that the sit­u­a­tion is im­prov­ing.

The Tuc­son sec­tor, which in­cludes most of Ari­zona’s bor­der, recorded 69 bod­ies from Oct. 1 through early March. But Chief Padilla said 53 of those were skele­tal re­mains, which sug­gests those mi­grants died at least two or three years ago.

Cold stor­age

Be­hind ev­ery body found, there is a hu­man story. In most cases, it’s up to Dr. Gre­gory L. Hess and his col­leagues at the Pima County Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner’s of­fice to try to iden­tify the body and, if pos­si­ble, re­turn the re­mains to the per­son’s fam­ily.

From 2001 through 2010, the of­fice took cus­tody of re­mains of 1,915 mi­grants and made iden­ti­fi­ca­tions in 1,146 cases.

The bod­ies come in four states: in­tact, fresh bod­ies; de­com­posed bod­ies; mum­mi­fied re­mains; and skele­tal re­mains.

For the first two cat­e­gories, ex­am­in­ers con­duct au­top­sies, try to iden­tify tat­toos or scars, take fin­ger­prints and doc­u­ment clothes, all of which can help with iden­ti­fy­ing the vic­tims. In the case of mum­mi­fied or skele­tal re­mains, an an­thro­pol­o­gist gets in­volved to try to de­ter­mine ba­sic de­tails such as sex, age, eth­nic­ity and whether trauma was in­volved.

Over­crowd­ing in the county’s stor­age fa­cil­ity has be­come so bad that it has made na­tional head­lines. In 2005, the county bought space for an ad­di­tional 142 re­mains, to reach a ca­pac­ity of 262 full-sized bod­ies. Dur­ing sum­mer months, though, when mi­grant deaths spike, re­frig­er­ated trucks have had to be brought in to add space.

At any time, about 100 of the bod­ies in stor­age are of mi­grants, who are of­ten tougher to iden­tify and re­turn to fam­i­lies — or if no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is pos­si­ble, to clear for cre­ma­tion.

“This county, this of­fice, have strug­gled for a while with how best to move these re­mains in a timely man­ner,” Dr. Hess said.

In 2005, the county in­vested in an­other cooler, and more re­cently it im­posed a $75-a-day fee on other ju­ris­dic­tions that leave their re­mains with Pima County. Dr. Hess said the fee has gone a long way to­ward prod­ding those other lo­cales to make faster de­ci­sions about how to dis­pose of re­mains.

Like Chief Padilla, Dr. Hess said he senses there has been an in­crease in the ra­tio of skele­tal re­mains to other bod­ies, which would sug­gest fewer fresh bod­ies — and pos­si­bly fewer deaths.

Dr. Hess said that even if no­body crossed the deserts, skele­tal re­mains still would be found from those who died in ear­lier at­tempts. But for now, peo­ple are still cross­ing, and dy­ing.

“We’re plan­ning on the same kind of sum­mer we’ve had for years,” said Dr. Hess. “We’re an­tic­i­pat­ing a lot of bod­ies in June, July, Au­gust. The sum­mer that changes, we’re likely to no­tice.”

A gur­ney is pushed through the cooler room in the Pima County morgue in Tuc­son, Ariz., in 2005. Over­crowd­ing in the county’s stor­age fa­cil­ity has be­come so bad that it has made na­tional head­lines. Dur­ing sum­mer months, when mi­grant deaths spike, re­frig­er­ated trucks have had to be brought in to add stor­age space.


Il­le­gal im­mi­grants eas­ily step over a fallen barbed-wire fence be­tween Mex­ico and the U.S. near the town of Sasabe, Mex­ico, in 2004. The num­ber of ap­pre­hen­sions of il­le­gal bor­der-crossers is down while the num­ber of deaths is high.

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