The increase in deaths has happened despite many signs that the number of immigrants crossing the border illegally has dropped in recent years. The number of people caught trying to sneak across the frontier without a visa has fallen in each of the last five years and stands at about half of the record 616,000 arrested in 2000.
Not only has the economic downturn in the United States eliminated many of the jobs that used to lure immigrants, human rights groups say, but also the federal government has stepped up efforts to stop the underground railroad of migrants, building mammoth fences in several border towns and flooding the region with hundreds of new Border Patrol agents equipped with high-tech surveillance tools.
These tougher enforcement measures have pushed smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances on isolated trails through the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona, where they must sometimes walk for three or four days before reaching a road.
“As we gain more control, the smugglers are taking people out to even more remote areas,” said Omar Candelaria, the special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “They have further to walk and they are less prepared for the journey, and they don’t make it.”
Many different factors contribute to this increase in deaths. A soaring heat wave is believed to be a main contributor to the morgue in Pima County, near Tucson, simply running out of room. Two weeks ago, the medical examiner had to bring in a refrigerated truck because there was simply no more room. Many of the remains will go unidentified.
According to the NYT:
The rise in deaths comes as Arizona is embroiled in a bitter legal battle over a new law intended to discourage illegal immigrants from settling here by making it a state crime for them to live or seek work.
But the law has not kept the immigrants from trying to cross hundreds of miles of desert on foot in record-breaking heat. The bodies of 57 border crossers have been brought in during July so far, putting it on track to be the worst month for such deaths in the last five years.
As more and more technology and manpower is poured into border control, more and more lives are lost because those crossing illegally have to go into more remote areas, further and further off the beaten path. The more days in the desert, the greater the likelihood some won’t make it.
Investigators sift through the things the dead carried for clues — Mexican voter registration cards, telephone numbers scrawled on scraps of paper, jewelry, rosaries, family photographs. Often there is precious little to go on.
Fewer immigrants crossing illegally each year and yet more deaths on the rise is not a good picture. Since 2000, the Puma County medical examiner’s office has dealt with about 1,700 bodies. They have identified about 1,050. That in itself is remarkable.
Looking at the greater picture, what must that say about the human condition on the other side of the border. Talk goes back home. What must inspire those who cross to make such a dangerous trek? Regardless of how strongly one feels about illegal immigration, it is real hard to not have some compassion for those who risk literally everything for work. It makes rhetoric like ‘illegal is illegal’ sound cheap and tawdry and frankly, meaningless. These aren’t people who study our thousands of pages of immigration laws. These aren’t people who deliberately violate our laws. These are people, often young people, who lay down their lives to be in this country.
Many of our ancestors came to this country under horrific conditions. They came in the holds of ships, they crossed the continent when all that was out there was bad weather, hostile American Indians, wild animals, extreme conditions, no roads. What drove them on? The promise of a better life for them and their families. Some emigrated alone. Some brought families. All took risks that many people today could never begin to undertake.
All countries have the right to decide who comes in and who crosses their borders. Yet while the immigration debate rages on, it is hard to ignore the human element of the question. It’s easier to ignore if one doesn’t think about what’s happening out there among the coyotes and the cactus, the heat and the rattle snakes, the 120 degree weather and the scorpions. Once a human face is put on the migrants, the question just looks a lot different.