TUCSON - Illegal immigrant deaths have risen along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past six months despite a nearly 25 percent drop in Border Patrol arrests that suggests far fewer people are entering the country unlawfully.
The number of migrant deaths along the roughly 2,000-mile border increased by nearly 7 percent between Oct. 1 and March 31, the first six months of the 2009 federal fiscal year. The biggest increase occurred in the patrol's Tucson sector, the nation's busiest corridor for illegal immigrants coming through Mexico.
In all, the remains of 128 people were found, compared to 120 in the same six-month period the year before, according to just-released Border Patrol statistics.
Yet apprehensions of people crossing illegally from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California dropped to less than 265,000 — a decrease of more than 24 percent from the comparable period a year ago and 37 percent from the first six months of the federal fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2006. The number of arrests is generally considered an indication of how many people are illegally crossing the border into the U.S. The more apprehensions, the more people are thought to be coming.
Migrants rights groups say there's a direct correlation between the number of deaths and increased enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"What we've seen is that the death rate has gone up even though the number of people crossing has gone down, the direct result of more agents, more fencing and more equipment," said the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of the Tucson-based group Humane Borders, which provides water stations for migrants crossing the southern Arizona desert. "The migrants are walking in more treacherous terrain for longer periods of time, and you should expect more deaths."
Nearly half the dead were found in the Border Patrol's rugged Tucson sector, which saw a 30 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. Deaths also rose in the Laredo and Del Rio sectors in Texas, and in the El Centro sector of southwestern California.
No sector approached Tucson's sheer numbers, where the remains of 60 people were found during the first half of the 2009 fiscal year.
Tucson sector Border Patrol spokesman Omar Candelaria said it was hard to say why deaths increased in his area, especially because they're not being found in summer, when most deaths occur.
He also said it is difficult to determine how long many of the bodies may have been there because many were skeletal remains.
Dr. Bruce Parks, the medical examiner in southern Arizona's Pima County, said more than half the bodies his office examined were skeletal remains, meaning they had not died recently. But that is down from first half of fiscal 2008, when 75 percent of the cases involved skeletal remains.
"Many of them are people that died sometime earlier, and it could be more than a year or two in some cases," Parks said. "It would make sense that you would expect the more apprehensions there are reflects a greater number of people crossing, and the more crossings the greater the number of deaths that should follow."
Parks' office also conducts autopsies for several other Arizona counties including Santa Cruz, Pinal and occasionally Yuma — all of which have regularly seen illegal immigrant deaths.
Weather, predominantly in the form of unrelenting late-spring and summer triple-digit heat, is often the key factor in illegal immigrant deaths in Arizona.
Hypothermia from frigid wintry conditions in the desert also occasionally can be fatal for unprepared desert crossers, Parks said.
Hoover said he's measured where the bodies are being found, and the average death locations are farther and farther away from roads than in previous years.
"So they're going around the fences, the technology and where the agents are," he said. "And the farther you walk from a safe place, the more likely a broken ankle becomes a death sentence."