Deaths rising as Mexicans brave desert

Other U.S. entry points have been sealed off, forcing dangerous trips


COVERED WELLS, Ariz. - At the bottleneck of human smuggling here in the Sonoran Desert, illegal immigrants are dying in record numbers as they try to cross from Mexico into the United States after a new Bush administration amnesty proposal that is being perceived by some migrants as a magnet to cross.

"The season of death," as Robert C. Bonner, the commissioner in charge of the Border Patrol, calls the hot months, has only just begun, and already 61 people have died in the Arizona border region since last Oct. 1, according to the Mexican Interior Ministry - triple the pace of the previous year.

The Border Patrol, which counts only bodies that it processes, says 43 people have died near the Arizona border since the start of its fiscal year on Oct. 1, more than in any other year in the same period.

Leon Stroud, a Border Patrol agent who is part of a squad that has the dual job of arresting illegal immigrants and trying to save their lives, said he saw 34 bodies in the last year. In Border Patrol parlance, a dead car and a dead migrant are the same thing - a "10-7" - but Stroud said he had never gotten used to the loss of life.

"The hardest thing was, I sat with this 15-year-old kid next to the body of his dad," said Stroud, a Texan who speaks fluent Spanish. "His dad had been a cook. He was too fat to be trying to cross this border. We built a fire and I tried to console him. It was tough."

`The strongest survive'

If the pace keeps up, even with initiatives to limit border crossings by using unmanned drones and Black Hawk helicopters in the air and beefed-up patrols on the ground, this will be the deadliest year ever to cross the nation's busiest smuggling corridor. The 154 deaths in the Border Patrol's Tucson and Yuma sectors last year set a record.

"This is unprecedented," said the Rev. John Fife, a Presbyterian minister in Tucson who is active in border humanitarian efforts. "Ten years ago there were almost no deaths on the southern Arizona border. What they've done is created this gantlet of death. It's Darwinian - only the strongest survive."

For years, deaths of people trying to cross the border usually occurred at night on highways near urban areas, killed by cars. But now, because urban entries in places such as San Diego and El Paso, Texas, have been nearly sealed by fences, technology and agents, illegal immigrants have been forced to try to cross here in southern Arizona, one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

They die from the sun, baking on the prickled floor of the Sonoran Desert, where ground temperatures reach 130 degrees before the first day of summer. They die freezing, higher up in the cold rocks of the Baboquivari Mountains on moonless nights. They die from bandits who prey on them, in cars that break down on them, and from hearts that give out on them.

The mountainous Sonoran Desert, between Yuma in the west and Nogales in the east, is the top smuggling entry point along the entire 1,951-mile line with Mexico, the Border Patrol says. Through the end of April, apprehensions of crossers in the desert south of Tucson had jumped 60 percent over the previous year. Nearly 300,000 people were caught trying to enter the United States through the desert border since last Oct. 1.

After a four-year drop, apprehensions - which the Border Patrol uses to measure human smuggling - are up 30 percent over last year along the entire southern border, with 660,390 people detained from Oct. 1 through the end of April, federal officials said.

The crossing here, over a simple barbed-wire fence, is followed by a walk of two or three days, up to 50 miles on ancient trails through a desert wilderness, to reach the nearest road, on the Tohono O'odham Nation Indian Reservation, a wedge of desert the size of Connecticut that is overrun with illegal immigrants, or on adjacent federal park or wildlife land. Most people start off with no more than 2 gallons of water, weighing almost 17 pounds, in plastic jugs. In recent days, with daytime temperatures over 100 degrees in the desert, a person needed a gallon of water just to survive walking five miles.

The desert is littered with garbage - empty plastic jugs, discarded clothes, toilet paper.

"My feet hurt, and I'm thirsty, but I will try again after a rest," said Edmundo Saenz Garcia, 28, who was apprehended on the reservation one morning near the end of his journey. After being fingerprinted for security, he will be sent back to Mexico, agents said.

Dangling a `carrot'

Garcia said he had heard that the new Bush immigration plan, which would grant work visas to millions of illegal immigrants inside the United States and to others who can prove they have jobs, was "amnesty," and he wondered why he was arrested. He said he would try to cross again in a few days.

Agents and groups opposed to open borders say the spike in crossings and deaths is the fault of the Bush proposal, which is stalled in Congress and unlikely to be acted on this year. But it has created a stir in Mexico, they say.

"They've dangled this carrot, and as a result apprehensions in Arizona are just spiking beyond belief," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 9,000 agents. "The average field agent is just mystified by the administration's throwing in the towel on this."

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