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


Illegal immigrants easily step over a fallen barbed-wire fence between Mexico and the United States near the town of Sasabe, Mexico, in 2004. The number of apprehensions of illegal border-crossers is down while the number of deaths in the desert is high. (Associated Press)

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.

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Stephen Dinan

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