Migrant Fatalities Rise At Ariz. Border

Sean Holstege, Arizona Republic, August 9, 2007

People seeking prosperity in this country are dying at record-setting rates in the deserts around Nogales, even though the number of illegal immigrants perishing throughout the Southwest continues to decline.

The alarming reversal of last year’s dip in fatalities between Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and New Mexico runs counter to government statistics that suggest fewer immigrants are crossing into Arizona. The rise in fatalities comes as more Border Patrol agents, fences, roads and cameras are arriving at the border. The increase also coincides with the start of the Bush administration’s phased withdrawal of supporting National Guard units from the border.

So far this year, the Border Patrol reported 154 deaths in that part of eastern Arizona. That’s a 23 percent increase over the same period last year and 6 percent more than the same time in 2005, the deadliest year for such crossings. advertisement

The sharp increase in desert fatalities in this area, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, comes even as agents are detaining 16 percent fewer illegal immigrants there than during the same period in 2006.

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Fewer apprehensions

Along the length of the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexican border, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended has fallen 31 percent through July, compared with the same period last year. The number of deaths is down 17 percent, from 315 to 263. Together, the data reinforces Bush administration claims that crossing the border is trickier than in years past.

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There are several explanations for the decline in apprehensions: The Border Patrol says its strategy for securing the frontier is working. Some economists attribute the decline to a slowdown in the U.S. economy, which has reduced the number of available jobs. Others say the Border Patrol is more focused on drug seizures, which are up, than on apprehensions. Still others say the number of apprehensions doesn’t accurately reflect the number of people who cross the border.

What is undisputed is that security improvements around border towns are steering more immigrants to cross in more-remote places. And that means dangerous, often deadly attempts to enter the country.

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‘More-perilous journeys’

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In the Yuma Sector, officials also are seeing immigrants trying to cross in more-remote areas. Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeremy Schappell said desperation leads border-crossers toward “more-perilous journeys.”

Throughout Arizona, heat exposure kills more immigrants than anything, according to county medical examiners’ reports. But there are additional perils now because bandits and smugglers increasingly prey on immigrants if they enter Arizona.

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Crossings are more violent than that in the Tucson Sector, where the second most commonly listed cause of death is “unknown.” That means medical examiners can’t determine when or how immigrants died.

“Most of the violence on migrants takes place in the first five miles north of Sasabe,” Hoover said. “Mexican nationals will lie in wait, put a .45 (caliber gun) in their mouth and say, ‘Give us all your money.’ ”

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Better surveillance?

The Border Patrol is adding agents. In Arizona in the past year, close to 500 new agents are on the line, bringing the total to slightly more than 3,600.

At the same time, the National Guard, as it pulls back from the border, has left behind better roads, barriers and fences near the towns. That slows down people trying to cross and speeds up Border Patrol agents’ responses.

In more remote areas, such as Arizona’s hot spot of Sasabe, the government is trying to supplement agents with electronic surveillance. The poster child is Project 28, a 28-mile strip near Sasabe, where a network of 90-foot camera towers, radar and ground sensors is supposed to show agents in trucks exactly what is happening in open terrain.

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