Why border crossings are down but deaths are up in brutal Arizona desert
A border patrol agent and a helicopter search a sugar cane field for undocumented immigrants outside McAllen, Texas.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
A young immigrant from Guatemala is detained by a Border Patrol agent just north of the Mexico border near McAllen, Texas.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
The Rio Grande separates Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, right, and Laredo, Texas.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
A border agent looks across the Rio Grande near Laredo, Texas.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Eduardo Canales prepares a water dispenser for undocumented immigrants walking across the scorching sandy scrublands of southern Texas. Canales, an organizer with the South Texas Human Rights Center, has arrangements with private ranchers to provide water and, in some cases, recover the bodies of immigrants who die en route.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
A 17-year-old Guatemalan is removed from a Border Patrol vehicle south of McAllen, Texas. Agents found him freezing along the Rio Grande after he had fallen off the raft carrying him across the river the night before.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter used by the Texas National Guard does a flyover of Laredo, Texas.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Deputy Ruben Salinas of the Hidalgo County Constable Department, closes the gate to Anzalduas Park outside McAllen, Texas. The park is a popular crossing point for illegals who walk or boat across the Rio Grande.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Deputy Ruben Salinas, left, of the Hidalgo County Constable Department, questions a group of 16 Guatemalans after they crossed the Rio Grande near Anzalduas Park outside McAllen, Texas. The group spent three weeks traveling across Mexico to get to the U.S.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Deputy Ruben Salinas, lower right, of the Hidalgo County Constable Department, escorts a group of 16 Guatemalans to Border Patrol officials.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
The sun sets at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Naco, Ariz., where a Border Patrol agent in his vehicle keeps an eye on things. Pole-mounted floodlights illuminate the fence at night.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
U.S. Border Patrol agents ride in the tailgate of a truck as it moves along the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Naco, Ariz. The dirt road is named International Highway, but the posted sign reads “U.S. Property No Trespassing.”(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Armed with a rifle, Jim Chilton and his wife, Sue, squeeze through a hole in a fence on their 50,000-acre cattle ranch in Arivaca, Ariz. Chilton thinks immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally and Mexican drug smugglers probably broke the fence post as they moved through his property.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
A U.S. Border Patrol agent rides an ATV along the “floating fence” that sits atop the Imperial Sand Dunes in southeastern California. Angled steel supports on either side give the fence stability atop the wind-blown sand.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
The desert sand east of San Luis, Ariz., is imprinted with border patrol tracks. A gap in the solid steel barrier leaves room for an official international boundary marker.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Lugging jugs of water, migrants thread their way along footpaths leading to the U.S. border. Backpacks hold canned food and snacks enough for a three or four days’ walk.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Senior Border Patrol Agent Chris Van Wagenen stands at the recently constructed bollard fence on the U.S.-Mexico border south of Yuma, Ariz.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
U.S. Border Patrol agent J.D. Martinez leads a migrant family out of the desert near Three Points, Ariz., south of Tucson.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Amber Stenson of “No More Deaths,” a group of volunteers who provide water, food and first aid to migrants crossing through the southern Arizona desert from Mexico, treats the blistered feet of men who were camped in the brush near the town of Aravaca.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
With a significant slowdown in the surge of migrants streaming across the Southwest border, it stands to reason that the number of deaths among those braving the crippling heat of Arizona’s desert frontier with Mexico would also decline.
But it didn’t.
In fact, even more people died attempting the perilous crossing: 117 bodies have been recovered along migration routes in southern Arizona since Jan. 1, compared with 108 bodies during the same period last year.
The answer lies in the type of person generally found dead on the U.S.-Mexican border: In 85% of cases, they are Mexican, according to Pima County Medical Examiner Greg Hess.
Most of the migrants who crossed the U.S. border last year were from violence-ridden countries in Central America who often turned themselves in to U.S. border agents and filed asylum petitions that allow them to remain in the U.S. until their cases are adjudicated.
But Mexican migrants tend to have different circumstances. Most who cross the border illegally face immediate arrest and deportation — and as a result, they often choose to evade detection by making their way up the deadly hot byways of the Arizona desert.
“You can’t attribute the number [of bodies found] to how many people tried to cross,” Hess said.
Very few of the dead are Central Americans. Eight percent of the bodies found between 2001 and 2014 were those of Guatemalans; Salvadorans accounted for 3% of the bodies found and 2% were Hondurans.
By contrast, many Mexicans — mostly young men — are crossing for economic opportunity, said Juanita Molina, executive director of Tucson-based Humane Borders, a nonprofit that sets up hydration stations in the desert with 300 gallons of water on both sides of the border.
Getting caught by the Border Patrol would be among the worst outcomes, so such migrants take grueling, unforgiving routes through arid country to avoid law enforcement.
Before the construction of fencing along large portions of the border in Arizona — similar to barriers also erected in parts of California and Texas — migrants were quick to simply slip through the border in Nogales, Ariz., Molina said.
Communities along the border, especially those near natural sources of water, were accustomed to border crossers. After Sept. 11, 2001, Border Patrol staffing ramped up and patrols changed and intensified.
The traditional routes became too risky. Now, migrants trying to avoid the Border Patrol take a route through 40 miles of mountains to reach the same destination. More migrants are dying in more remote regions as a result, Molina said.
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office is responsible for analyzing remains collected along most of the Arizona border, including Santa Cruz and Cochise counties.
The remains of others classified as border crossers who died elsewhere that are taken to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office can come from as far north as Phoenix, where people who die bearing obvious signs of crossing the border are counted as unidentified border crossers.
Some of the deadliest years included 2013, when 168 bodies were recovered, and 2012, when 156 were found.
Since the office began recording the bodies of border crossers as a distinct category, the fewest number of bodies discovered was in 2001, when the remains of 77 people were found.
The worst year by far since the medical examiner’s office began collecting data was 2010, when 223 bodies were found — 99 in June, July and August alone, overwhelming the office.
As migrants seek riskier routes to avoid capture, even the relatively mild Arizona winter poses risks. Unexpected rain or snow could be deadly, Molina said.
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In the formerly easy crossing of Nogales, Humane Borders has papered local stores, shelters and churches with warning posters. “Don’t go!” they urge. “There’s not enough water!”
In addition to the warning is a map. One day’s walk is marked in a small circle. Larger concentric circles show the distance most migrants could cover in two or three days, barely to an interior Border Patrol checkpoint, all of it a desert or mountain.
The map is also littered with red dots, each one representing a migrant death. To the west are the more traditional routes where most migrants die, in the low hills and deserts near highways. To the east is less-explored terrain where far fewer migrants have attempted those routes, so far.
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