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.
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.
Fencing or vehicle barriers now rule along much of the state’s border, and technology has helped speed the Border Patrol’s ability to detect and react to incursions.
That has led the Obama administration to declare the border more secure than at any other time in recent history.
The Border Patrol’s leaders on the ground say the improvements have been dramatic.
“There’s a lot of debate on the state of the border. [People] that have been out here before [know], it’s a night-and-day comparison to what the border was,” said Manuel Padilla Jr., deputy chief agent for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.
With apprehensions down, the Border Patrol last year decided it was time to focus on trying to reduce the death rate. Officials began to run public service announcements and conduct press interviews in countries that send the most illegal immigrants across the border, warning of the hardships of making such a crossing.
“We started bringing in the consular officers from those countries. That was the biggest push on this, because they actually helped us frame the message that would have the biggest impact into those states and into those countries,” Chief Padilla said.
Some ads warned of the dangers of violence, but consular officials told the Border Patrol that message didn’t play as well in places such as El Salvador because violence isn’t out of the norm in their home countries. The pitch to those countries was changed to focus instead on the harshness of the terrain and the chance of getting lost or left behind, Chief Padilla said.
He said they are seeing some signals that the situation is improving.
The Tucson sector, which includes most of Arizona’s border, recorded 69 bodies from Oct. 1 through early March. But Chief Padilla said 53 of those were skeletal remains, which suggests those migrants died at least two or three years ago.
Behind every body found, there is a human story. In most cases, it’s up to Dr. Gregory L. Hess and his colleagues at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office to try to identify the body and, if possible, return the remains to the person’s family.
From 2001 through 2010, the office took custody of remains of 1,915 migrants and made identifications in 1,146 cases.
The bodies come in four states: intact, fresh bodies; decomposed bodies; mummified remains; and skeletal remains.
For the first two categories, examiners conduct autopsies, try to identify tattoos or scars, take fingerprints and document clothes, all of which can help with identifying the victims. In the case of mummified or skeletal remains, an anthropologist gets involved to try to determine basic details such as sex, age, ethnicity and whether trauma was involved.
Overcrowding in the county’s storage facility has become so bad that it has made national headlines. In 2005, the county bought space for an additional 142 remains, to reach a capacity of 262 full-sized bodies. During summer months, though, when migrant deaths spike, refrigerated trucks have had to be brought in to add space.
At any time, about 100 of the bodies in storage are of migrants, who are often tougher to identify and return to families — or if no identification is possible, to clear for cremation.
“This county, this office, have struggled for a while with how best to move these remains in a timely manner,” Dr. Hess said.
In 2005, the county invested in another cooler, and more recently it imposed a $75-a-day fee on other jurisdictions that leave their remains with Pima County. Dr. Hess said the fee has gone a long way toward prodding those other locales to make faster decisions about how to dispose of remains.
Like Chief Padilla, Dr. Hess said he senses there has been an increase in the ratio of skeletal remains to other bodies, which would suggest fewer fresh bodies — and possibly fewer deaths.
Dr. Hess said that even if nobody crossed the deserts, skeletal remains still would be found from those who died in earlier attempts. But for now, people are still crossing, and dying.
“We’re planning on the same kind of summer we’ve had for years,” said Dr. Hess. “We’re anticipating a lot of bodies in June, July, August. The summer that changes, we’re likely to notice.”