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Migrants Survive Arizona Desert

Times Staff Writer

Authorities searched this isolated desert region Wednesday after they discovered nearly 100 undocumented migrants who apparently had been left by smugglers -- without drinking water -- hiding in the brush.

The illegal immigrants were found Tuesday afternoon by a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. They emerged from the brush and pleaded for water, saying they had spent three days in triple-digit heat without any supplies. The immigrants reported that three people had died, but no bodies were found.

Deputies Wednesday afternoon finished their search of the swath of palo verde and creosote about 50 miles west of Phoenix, finding three additional survivors. Federal immigration investigators were interviewing dozens of the migrants, mostly Guatemalans, in an attempt to piece together what had happened.

The discovery was startling, even in Arizona, where the Border Patrol has caught more than 445,000 people trying to enter the country illegally since October. Phoenix authorities occasionally find safe houses holding more than 100 migrants, and politics are dominated by immigration issues.

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“We’ve got all this surveillance and vigilance on the border and they’re still coming,” said Sheriff Joe Arpaio. “I’m not going to let these people come through this county.”

Since May, Arpaio has used a controversial interpretation of a state law outlawing human trafficking to go after illegal immigrants. The sheriff has dispatched a posse of some of his 3,000 volunteers, supervised by sworn deputies, to look for smugglers taking immigrants through Maricopa County.

When they catch smugglers, deputies also arrest the immigrants, an action that the county attorney supports but which the state law’s author says was not its intent. Arpaio’s agency has arrested 249 migrants and County Attorney Andrew P. Thomas has filed felony charges of human trafficking against 48 of them.

A judge last week threw out charges against two of those immigrants, saying prosecutors didn’t prove the migrants agreed to be smuggled. As recently as Friday, about 200 protesters demonstrated outside Arpaio’s office, accusing him of wasting resources that should be used against violent criminals.

Arpaio said none of those found in the desert Tuesday would be prosecuted because he did not catch them while they were being transported. Elias Bermudez, the activist who organized Friday’s protest, praised that decision.

“If it wasn’t for the sheriff, I don’t know how many people would have died out there,” Bermudez said Wednesday. “We find the sheriff does have a human heart.”

Arpaio said that his deputies would scour the area to try to find the smugglers.

Arpaio’s deputy was patrolling the remote area along 355th Avenue, a winding two-lane stretch of blacktop that runs through the desert mountains northwest of Phoenix. The deputy spotted debris along a dirt road that branches off from the main route Monday, then returned about 1 p.m. Tuesday to find it gone.

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Suspicious, the deputy explored farther down the road and spotted a pickup covered by bushes. At that point, said Lt. Paul Chagolla, the migrants emerged, pleading for water.

“They were in dire straights,” said Chagolla, a department spokesman who spent Tuesday at the scene. “Since Sunday, they’d been without water.”

Sheriff’s cars and ambulances converged on the scene. At least 25 migrants were taken to hospitals for treatment -- as were three deputies who suffered heat exhaustion during the search.

The other migrants were handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was questioning them Wednesday. Authorities were trying to determine how the migrants got to the stretch of desert north of Interstate 10 and 110 miles from the border. One theory was that they were driven there by one team of smugglers and were supposed to be picked up by another crew.

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Russell Ahr, an ICE spokesman, said the agency had in custody 65 Guatemalans and five Mexicans, one of whom was being investigated as a possible smuggler. Eleven of the migrants were women.

Ahr said that nine other migrants remained in hospitals while others had apparently left hospitals after being treated and were now free. “We’re OK with that,” he said.

The migrants will be held at a detention facility south of Phoenix while investigators try to build a case against the smugglers.

The illegal immigrants will eventually have their cases heard by a federal immigration judge, who can decide whether they will stay in the United States or be deported to their home country.

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Bermudez, the immigration activist, said he hoped the sheriff would end his patrols.

“He is supposed to arrest criminals and he is going after noncriminals,” Bermudez said. “They are easy prey for him. But they’re not people who are here to harm us.”

Arpaio gave no indication that he would back down. He said he was surprised to find migrants in the remote region because smugglers had previously concentrated their efforts south of I-10.

He said that the location was apparently shifting because of his crackdown and that his posse’s arrests had dwindled recently.

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“The word is out. We’re having trouble finding them -- which is good,” Arpaio said. “Let them go to California.”


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