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As immigration politics play out, border deaths rise

desert helicopter

Photo by rejuvesite/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter over the Arizona desert

A few days before I left for Phoenix last week to cover the events surrounding SB 1070, Arizona's controversial anti-illegal immigration law, I posted on a darker story unfolding to the south: Just in the first two weeks of July, the bodies of 40 people believed to have crossed the border illegally had been delivered to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson.  Officials there were struggling with a crowded morgue and concerned that if the trend continued, July border-crossing deaths there would top their single-month record of 68 deaths in July 2005.

That did not happen, but according to the Homeland Security Department, but there is worse news: Year to date, overall border-crossing deaths in the U.S. Border Patrol's arid Tucson sector have topped those recorded by the agency during fiscal year 2005, the deadliest year on record along the entire southwest border, when 492 deaths were recorded border-wide.

The bodies of 197 people have been found in the Tucson sector between last Oct. 1 (the start of federal fiscal year 2010) and July 31, DHS spokesman Steven Cribby said today. During that same period in fiscal year 2005, the Tucson sector recorded 184 deaths.

The implications are troubling. Illegal border-crossing arrests have been on the decline, yet last year, deaths on the border began increasing again. At the same time, fewer people are being rescued in the Arizona desert: According to DHS, the Border Patrol has recorded 546 rescues year-to-date in the Tucson sector, compared with 905 during the same period in fiscal year 2005.

A longtime border activist I quoted in a story once explained it this way: As border security gets tighter, smugglers find new routes that are more remote and more dangerous. “People are crossing in more remote places where the possibility of being rescued is minimal,” she said.

That was in 2004. While the tenor of the immigration debate has changed since, along the border, much remains the same.