TONOPAH, Ariz. -- Authorities searched through this isolated desert region yesterday after authorities discovered nearly 100 undocumented migrants who apparently had been left by smugglers - without drinking water - hiding in the brush.
The illegal immigrants were discovered Tuesday afternoon by a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. They emerged from the brush and pleaded for water, saying they had spent three days in triple-digit heat without any supplies. The immigrants reported that three people had died, but no bodies were found.
Deputies yesterday continued to comb over the swath of palo verde and creosote about 50 miles west of Phoenix, looking for other survivors. Federal immigration investigators were interviewing dozens of the migrants, mostly Guatemalans, in an attempt to piece together what had happened.
The discovery was startling, even in Arizona, where the Border Patrol has caught more than 445,000 people trying to enter the country illegally since October. Phoenix authorities occasionally find safe houses holding more than 100 migrants, and politics are dominated by immigration issues.
"We've got all this surveillance and vigilance on the border and they're still coming," said Sheriff Joe Arpaio, best known for dressing his jail inmates in pink uniforms. "I'm not going to let these people come through this county."
Since May, Arpaio has used a controversial interpretation of a state law outlawing human trafficking to go after illegal immigrants. The sheriff has dispatched a posse of 3,000 volunteers, supervised by sworn deputies, to look for smugglers taking immigrants through Maricopa County.
When they catch smugglers, deputies also arrest the immigrants, an action that the county attorney supports but that the law's author says was not its intent. As recently as Friday, about 200 protesters demonstrated outside Arpaio's office, accusing him of persecuting immigrants.
Arpaio said none of those found in the desert Tuesday would be prosecuted because he did not catch them while they were being transported. Elias Bermudez, the activist who organized Friday's protest, praised that decision.
"If it wasn't for the sheriff, I don't know how many people would have died out there," Bermudez said yesterday. "We find the sheriff does have a human heart." Arpaio said that his deputies would scour the area to try to find the smugglers.
Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is Arizona's most populous county. The area searched is about 120 miles north of the Mexican border.