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Report: Border death rate spiking, despite drop in crossings
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Report: Border death rate spiking, despite drop in crossings

Discovery of bodies points to annual 'mass casualty event'

  • Report co-author Robin Reineke, Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess, forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson, former ME Bruce Parks, and UA Prof. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith discussed their findings Wednesday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comReport co-author Robin Reineke, Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess, forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson, former ME Bruce Parks, and UA Prof. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith discussed their findings Wednesday.
  • The number of deaths on the border has remained relatively stable in recent years, even as the number of people trying to cross the border has dropped, according to a new study. 'UBC' in the chart stands for 'unidentified border crosser.'
    Binational Migration InstituteThe number of deaths on the border has remained relatively stable in recent years, even as the number of people trying to cross the border has dropped, according to a new study. 'UBC' in the chart stands for 'unidentified border crosser.'
  • The number of bodies found of people trying to cross the border has risen steadily in relation to the number of apprehensions on the border, according to a new study.
    Binational Migration InstituteThe number of bodies found of people trying to cross the border has risen steadily in relation to the number of apprehensions on the border, according to a new study.

The death rate among migrants in Southern Arizona has "increased exponentially" since the early 2000s, despite an overall decrease in illegal border crossings, a report released Wednesday said.

In 2011, the number of bodies discovered in the desert was double that in 2009, when compared to the number of border crossers caught by federal agents.

The leading cause of death shifted from exposure to "undetermined," suggesting that human remains are being discovered in more remote areas, in more decomposed states, the report said.

"The shift in U.S. Border Patrol policy from prevention to deterrence" pushed illegal border crossers into more remote areas where "they're taking longer to be discovered," said Robin Reineke, a doctoral candidate at the UA School of Anthropology and a co-author of the report.

"Despite the flow of unauthorized migration being near 20-year lows, the number of deaths has not decreased, and has in fact remained near peak highs," said Daniel E. Martinez, the study's lead author.

At a Wednesday morning press conference, the report's authors acknowledged the difficulty of determining the precise date of death of bodies that are in advanced stages of decomposition when found.

All bodies, including skeletal remains, are tallied as deaths in the year in which they are discovered, they said.

Complicating the dating of deaths is the fact that officials are unable to identify 34 percent of the remains discovered. In addition, there are a reported 1,500 missing people — known to have been crossing the border — whose bodies have never been located, Reineke said.

Federal officials have acknowledged the difficulty of determining a complete picture of illegal border crossings. Apprehensions have fallen recently after spiking sharply as border enforcement grew tighter, and Homeland Security officials have maintained that drops in other metrics, including crossers known to have eluded border agents, and "turnbacks" — those who are forced to return to Mexico because of enforcement or hostile terrain, point to an overall drop in illegal cross-border moves.

Bodies found not falling with apprehensions

The number of deaths of illegal immigrants has not decreased as the number of border crossers caught by the Border Patrol has dropped, the 23-page report released by the University of Arizona's Binational Migration Institute said.

The study, prepared by researchers from the UA and Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, examined the deaths in Pima County of over 2,200 people believed to be border crossers.

"More people are dying today," said Martinez, an assistant professor of Sociology at George Washington University, who spoke to reporters via teleconference.

"The death rate has not decreased. This is concerning especially considering the increase in migrant deaths and death rates in other areas of the border such as South Texas," Martinez said.

Comparing the number of human remains discovered to the number of unauthorized crossers caught by border agents, 2011's rate of migrant deaths per 100,000 apprehensions was double that of 2009.

Martinez attributed the steady death rate to the "funnel effect," as more illegal immigrants funneled into the Sonoran Desert to avoid tighter security on other sections of the border. That put the smaller number of crossers in a deadlier place, said the report’s authors.

“People weren’t necessarily deterred,” said Martinez, who began looking through data in 2005 while he was a UA master’s student.

The report looked at more than 20 years of data from the Pima County Medical Examiners Office. It found that border deaths averaged 12 a year from 1990-1999. Between 2000 and 2012, however, that average number of deaths jumped to 163 per year, even though migration decreased during that time.

A crossing in a more-remote area of the desert can take three to five days, compared to two or three days in a less-hostile environment, Martinez said.

Migrants from countries other than Mexico — mostly Central Americans — increased from 9 percent of identified deaths between 2000-2005 to 17 percent in 2006-2012.

The number of Central Americans apprehended in Texas' Rio Grande Valley now exceeds the number of Mexican nationals, Martinez said.

The number of females dying in the desert rose from 13 percent of all migrant deaths from 1990-1999 to 23 percent in 2000-2006. The percentage dropped to 16 percent in 2006-2012.

And most of those who died were young.

The average deceased border crosser was a Mexican male around age 30, the report said.

From 1990-2012, 13 percent were 10-19 years old, while 37 percent were between 20-29.

Donald M. Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said the study shows how dangerous certain parts of the border are.

“It’s more dangerous to cross than it’s ever been,” Kerwin said.

Increased border enforcement has forced migrants to dangerous areas of the desert, leaving them vulnerable to “unscrupulous and dangerous smugglers.”

"These are young people in the prime of life," Bruce Anderson, forensic anthropologist for the Medical Examiner's Office, said in a news release.

"They are impoverished people coming here in the hopes of supporting their families," said Anderson, a co-author of the report.

Reineke said, "We are able to see signs of poverty and economic distress written on their bodies, and represented in the items they are carrying."

"There's a gut feeling that we've had more skeletal remains," Anderson told reporters.

“I don’t know how to change policy. I don’t know how to stop deaths. I don’t know how to change the status quo,” Anderson said.

But he can contribute his expertise of examining bodies and determining how the migrants died, he said, and then provide that data to researchers for their study, which he hoped would help policymakers with immigration reform.

The report's authors called for a standardized program to track the number of deaths of illegal immigrants.

"There's no federal effort," Anderson told reporters, saying Pima County's work should "provide a model" for other jurisdictions.

"The Border Patrol doesn't have full numbers," he said. Hikers who discover a body call the police, rather than border agents, he said.

"I think the numbers we have are the best we can do right now," said Gregory Hess, chief pathologist for the Medical Examiner's Office.

"According to the state, on the death certificate, the date and time that somebody dies is when they were found. You have to at the end of the day put something there that makes sense. And, so you're recording the death of when they're found," he said.

"When they died is just a guess. So, you can use what knowledge we have from our anthropology staff of when we think this person died, but when you try to reshuffle deaths and put it into a different time frame it can be confusing," Hess said.

Unauthorized crossers account for about 10 percent of the examinations performed by the medical examiner, he said.

While the expense of those examinations isn't a strain on the ME's budget, time is a factor, he said.

Each year, "of the 2,400-2,500 calls that we get and of the almost 1,500 examinations that we do, only 150 of those are migrant deaths," Hess said.

"We spend a lot of time trying to identify" bodies that are discovered in the desert, he said, including obtaining information from foreign consulates and family members who report missing border crossers.

Hess said that it's the job of the Medical Examiner's Office to determine identity and cause of death "regardless of the legal status of the deceased."

Dr. Bruce Parks, now retired after serving as chief pathologist from 1991-2011, said, "We have always tried to treat each person with the same level of respect and scientific rigor when investigating their death."

'Mass casualty event'

"A way we talked about the deaths is we have a mass fatality event extended over time," Reineke said.  "Every year, across the border from California to Texas, we have a mass casualty event, every single year."

"We've never been confronted with hundreds of people dying at once and failed to do something about it. In disasters, we want to know how this happened and why, but here we avoid it,"  said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a UA Mexican Studies professor who contributed to the report.

"We have thousands dying and no one wants to do a thing about it," Rubio-Goldsmith said.

"I don't think there is a sincere effort to deal with the root causes" of illegal immigration, she said, calling for "economic development in Mexico" to be prioritized over border enforcement.

Cronkite News Service reporter Emileie Eaton contributed to this report.


Causes of death

According to the report:

  • The leading cause of death changed from exposure in the time period of 1990 to 2005, to undetermined, between 2006 – 2012, a shift suggesting that remains are being discovered in more remote areas and in a more decomposed state.
  • Migrants dying in motor vehicle accidents has decreased steadily, from 20 percent of all unauthorized border crosser deaths from 1990-1999, to 11 percent from 2000-2005, and then to 7 percent from 2006 – 2012.
  • There was no change in the percentage determined to have been victims of homicide, which remained at 4 percent of all UBC deaths from 2000-2012.

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