Immigrant Deaths in the Desert on the Decline in AZ

Arizona Sonora News file photo
Arizona Sonora News file photo

Much of the Arizona Sonora Desert is a desolate region that is filled with desperation and little hope. Despite the lack of promise in much of the desert, people continue to cross illegally in search of hope, opportunity and stability in the United States.

For years, people from all over the world particularly Latin America, have endured the risky and dangerous journey of illegally crossing the border and have died in their search for a better life. Recently, the number of immigrant deaths in the Arizona Sonora Desert has been on a steady decline.

But while the number of immigrant deaths has gone down, that doesn’t mean people aren’t still crossing the border. 

“I have seen the number of immigrant bodies discovered in the desert continue to drop slowly even though the flow of immigration has not stopped,” said Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory Hess.

Hess, said that in his eight years as medical examiner, he continues to see fewer immigrant bodies who have perished in the desert each year.

According to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner’s Annual Reports, there have been a total of 1,965 immigrant bodies that the Pima County Medical Examiner has examined since 2004 with 11 of those deaths occurring as recently as February.

According to Hess, the average number of immigrant bodies that the medical examiner’s office received each year in the 1990s was about 10 bodies. That average number of immigrant deaths has increased tremendously over the past 25 years. Between 2004 and 2014, there has been an average of 195 immigrant deaths that have been inspected by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office.

This past year, 2014, had the lowest number of migrant deaths recorded by the medical examiner’s officer in over 10 years. In 2014 there were a total of 131 migrant deaths discovered in the desert. That number is down tremendously from the peak of those 10 years, which was in 2010 with 223 deaths.

Mayrada Vallet, longtime volunteer at the humanitarian organization No Mas Muertes, said that there has been a misconception regarding the number of declining deaths in the desert. Vallet said many people think there has been a drastic drop in the number immigrants migrating and that there has been a significant decrease in the number of deaths in the desert both of which she claims to not be true.

“The immigrant death rate in the desert is still very high,” Vallet said. “The number of bodies discovered has decreased but the number of deaths has not decreased. People are traveling and dying in more remote areas of the desert and many times the bodies are not found. Migrants continue to be funneled into more dangerous, isolated desert terrain.”

Vallet said with the increase of militarization on the border, people are forced to migrate through more uninhabited parts of the desert resulting in many bodies not being found. She said that people are no longer migrating through common smuggling routes through border towns such as Nogales and Douglas but smaller less populated places like Sasabe, Lukeville.

Operations Officer John Lawson of Customs and Border Protection, agreed with both Hess and Vallet that the number of bodies discovered in the desert is down in Arizona but said that the immigrant death rate is still very high especially in other areas of the border.

“In Arizona, people are immigrating in more remote areas of the desert and not the typical border towns,” Lawson said. “Our mission was to protect and make the border towns safer and essentially the Border Patrol presence has pushed the migrants into more remote areas of the desert.”

According to the United States Border Patrol Southwest Border Sectors statistics, the number of immigrants bodies discovered in the Arizona desert continues to drop but the numbers of immigrants bodies found in Texas continues to rise.

For 2014 in the Tucson sector, which makes up most of Southern Arizona, and Yuma, the number of immigrant bodies discovered by Border Patrol was 110 bodies. That number is down from the 200 bodies discovered the previous year in 2013.

For 2014 in the Texas sectors, which are made up of the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, El Paso, Del Rio and Big Bend, Border Patrol discovered 186 bodies. 

Although the number of discovered bodies is down in Arizona, there is still a high number of immigrants being found and rescued by Border Patrol.

For the Tucson and Yuma sectors, there were a total of 529 immigrants rescued in the desert who received aid and assistance by Border Patrol in 2014. This number is significantly higher than the numbers of deceased bodies that were found.

Both Hess and Lawson said that although they are both having less contact with immigrant bodies, it still does not make their job easier when they do encounter a deceased migrant.

For the most recent Medical Examiner’s Report in 2013, the number of unidentified bodies was 7 percent. Along with bodies that are severely decomposed, people travel without documentation or travel with false identification which can make it more difficult to identify a person.

“Many times when we encounter a deceased person, it is hard to identify their gender,” Lawson said. “By being exposed to the hot sun, especially in the summer time, the body begins to decompose quickly and it can be hard to identify a body right away.”

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