The southwestern U.S. border has become an increasingly lethal snare: Brutal heat, desert freezes, harsh currents, poisonous snakes and sporadic gunfire are killing a rising number of undocumented migrants who are picking progressively treacherous routes to elude extra federal patrols.

And the “border surge”—a Senate proposal to double U.S. agents on the Mexican boundary and extend 700 miles of fencing—would squeeze even more incoming migrants onto perilous and scorching overland paths, likely boosting the death toll of crossers from the 477 who perished attempting to enter America during 2012, experts say.

“People are going into more dangerous areas. It’s probably very difficult to carry water the farther out you’re going,” said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based group that researches immigration issues. He authored a March study that showed the death rate among people trying to illegally traverse the Mexican border soared by 27 percent last year while overall migration from Mexico continued to decline.

“These aren’t camping trips. People aren’t preparing. Or, they may be taken in by smugglers … and that’s not the same as a family going together where they really care about what happens to one another,” Anderson said.

Harsh weather and desolate terrain combine to cause the most common form of death on the border: a nasty blend of dehydration plus either overheated or over-chilled bodies, according to a University of Arizona study published this month that examined data from the Pima County (Arizona) Medical Examiner’s Office.


Bullets also fly on the border. According to Isacson’s tracking: “There have been as many as 20 cross-border shooting incidents in the last few years.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed that during the past two years there have been eight such fatal incidents involving their agents or officers.


On June 4, Mexican soldiers rescued 165 people who had been kidnapped about three weeks earlier by a drug cartel and held in a small home along the U.S. line. Among the victims were 150 migrants from Central America who had planned to cross the border in the Rio Grande Valley.

As Congress appears set to clamp down even harder on the U.S.-Mexico border with bolstered patrols and fencing, human-rights advocates like Isacson and Boyce contend that deaths among illegal migrants will spike as more of those people choose to head even deeper into the remote, desert scrub and higher into the mountains as they hike to enter America. Temperatures along those routes can reach 110 degrees.

“If they’re going to double border patrol, they should at least quadruple or quintuple the portion of border patrol that is doing search and rescue,” Isacson said. “That would save some lives.”


Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, however, that “common sense immigration reform legislation” must include measures that would tighten border security—along with crackdowns on employers that hire undocumented workers and a streamlining of the legal-immigration system.

“The border security amendment agreed to by a bipartisan group of Senators is in line with that criteria,” Napolitano said in a June 21 statement. “It will devote important additional resources to the robust border security system this Administration has put in place and strengthen what was already an unmatched piece of border security legislation.”

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