Arizona migrant border deaths on track for record amid heat
DOUGLAS, Arizona (AP) - 19-year-old Cesar de la Cruz was killed by exposure to heat on his way to Arizona on his way out of southern Mexico in July. The body of Juan Lopez Valencia, another young Mexican, was discovered during a dry wash in Native American lands on August 3.
After the hottest, driest summer in the state's history, authorities have rebounded from a 10-year record for the number of people moving from Mexico to Arizona's deserts, valleys and mountains. It's a reminder that the farthest routes of entry into the U.S. can be the deadliest.
Enforcement efforts in neighboring states over the years have helped drive people into the difficult terrain of Arizona, and some officials and activists believe President Donald Trump's reinforced construction of the border wall this year, mostly in Arizona, will also attract migrants Access to food and water could be safely pushed into dangerous areas.
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De la Cruz and Lopez Valencia were among the 214 confirmed or suspected migrants whose deaths on the Arizona border from January to November were documented by the nonprofit Humane Borders and the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, who are jointly mapping the restoration of human remains.
"I have no doubt that the high temperatures have a lot to do with it," said Mike Kreyche, mapping coordinator for Humane Borders.
The highest annual number the project documented was 224 in 2010. It was not clear whether 2020 would exceed that number if December is factored in.
The Border Patrol keeps its own statistics and lists the remains of suspicious migrants it learns about in the course of its duties, according to the parent agency Customs and Border Protection. CBP said if another agency recovers leftovers and doesn't notify the Border Patrol, it won't be added to their list.
In the first nine months of 2020, the Border Patrol listed 43 deaths in the Yuma and Tucson sectors that make up the Arizona border area. The mapping project tracked 181 deaths over the same period.
During the 2019 calendar year, the federal government listed 70 deaths in Arizona while the mapping project numbered 144.
According to federal statistics, search and rescue operations near the Arizona border inexplicably fell from 232 in July and August 2019 to 213 in a record-breaking July and August. However, the numbers for early fall suggest that bailouts were trending in the southwest.
Hess told the Pima County Regulatory Agency in October that high temperatures and dry weather appeared to be the reason more bodies were found this year. While recovery has included skeletons, there have been many deaths recently.
The National Weather Service in Phoenix says the average high temperature was nearly 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) in July and nearly 111 degrees in August, which helped make it the hottest summer in history. According to forecasters, the highs in Phoenix are roughly the same as in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona north of the border with Mexico.
The weather service said July and August were also the driest summer months in the state.
Hess informed the supervisory authorities of the district that he had not noticed any significant changes in the people crossing.
However, some officials and activists working near the Arizona border believe that building the Wall could send migrants to more risky places. The Trump administration expects that around 725 kilometers of border walls will be completed by the end of the year, much of it in Arizona.
"The wall sent a lot of people into rough terrain in our area," said Tony Estrada, sheriff in Santa Cruz County, whose jurisdiction is Nogales, Arizona. "It's like driving cattle into a ravine where they will eventually die."
The remains of more than 3,000 migrants have been found near the Arizona border in the two decades since increased enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas began to drive people into the Arizona deserts and mountains.
The authorities were able to identify about two thirds. Most came from Mexico and Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"It's important to remember that these are people, not just numbers," said Tony Banegas, CEO of the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson, which works with the medical office to identify the bodies. "The only thing we can be sure of is that a lot more people have died out there that we don't even know about."
It's not just in Arizona. In the past decade, mass graves of frontier workers have surfaced in South Texas after large numbers of migrants wandered through remote ranches to bypass the official checkpoint in the small town of Falfurrias.
Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez said his Texas department had seen an increase in 911 calls from cross-border commuters this year, but the number of suspected migrants found in the county had dropped to 33 by the end of November, compared to 45 in the same 11 Month period in the last year.
"We put posters on fixed objects like poles, cattle guards and railroad crosses telling them to call 911 for help," Martinez said.
In southern Arizona, No More Deaths and similar humanitarian groups leave water jugs and other food in remote locations. The group gained national attention when one of its members was tried and acquitted last year for detaining migrants.
Estrada, the Santa Cruz County sheriff, said he feared officials could suffer more deaths over the next year if large groups of migrants flock to the border in hopes that Joe Biden's administration will be more welcoming.
"These people will move on because most of them have nothing at home," said Estrada.
Follow Anita Snow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/asnowreports
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