Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

While eyes are on Phoenix, a grim story unfolds to the south

Border fence at Imperial Sand Dunes, California

Photo by Eric White/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A stretch of border fence through the desert, Imperial Sand Dunes, California.

As the news media prepares to focus on Phoenix next week, when the state's controversial SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration law is set to take effect, a grim aspect of the illegal immigration story is unfolding to the south.

Several Arizona media outlets reported last week that by mid-July, the bodies of 40 illegal border crossers had been brought to the office of the Pima County Medical Examiner in Tucson, so many that some of the bodies had to be stored in a refrigerated truck for lack of space. Officials there said that if the trend continues, the deaths could top the single-month record of 68 in July 2005, the highest number since the medical examiner's office began tracking them in 2000.

Why were border-crossing deaths in Arizona not tracked before then? Because until around that time, Arizona's border desert was not a major human smuggling corridor. That distinction went to California. A gradual tightening of border security in this state - starting with Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in the mid-1990s - pushed smuggling traffic gradually east until it hit Arizona, and people began dying in large numbers from exposure and dehydration. More will likely succumb to Arizona's harsh climes in the coming week, with high temperatures predicted.