The final fiscal year 2009 tally of border deaths confirms a lethal trend: illegal border crossers face a deadlier trek than ever across Arizona's desert.
The 241,600 apprehensions made in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector marked a 10-year low, Border Patrol figures show. These figures, along with declining remittances from the U.S. to Mexico and anecdotal reports that the economic recession has slowed illegal immigration, point to a dramatic slowdown in illegal border crossings.
Yet the 213 bodies of suspected illegal border crossers found in the Tucson Sector are the third-most ever, behind 230 in 2005 and 223 in 2007, the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database shows. That means the risk of dying is more than twice as high today compared with five years ago and nearly 30 times greater than in 1998.
There were 88 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in the area covered in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in fiscal year 2009, which ended on Sept. 30, the Star's database indicates. That's up from 39 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in 2004 and three per 100,000 apprehensions in 1998.
The increased risk of death coincides with the unprecedented buildup of agents, fences, roads and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border, casting doubt on a mantra often used by the Border Patrol that a "secure border is a safe border."
There are now 3,300 agents, more than 200 miles of fences and vehicle barriers, and 40 agents assigned to the agency's search, rescue and trauma team, Borstar, yet illegal immigrants are still dying while trying to cross the Border Patrol's 262-mile-long Tucson Sector.
Border-county law enforcement, Mexican Consulate officials, Tohono O'odham tribal officials and humanitarian groups say the increase in fencing, technology and agents has caused illegal border crossers to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain, increasing the likelihood that people will get hurt or fatigued and left behind to die.
The Border Patrol disagrees that it's pushing illegal immigrants into more hazardous terrain and points to its rescue efforts as evidence that its presence prevents deaths rather than causes them. Agents in the Tucson Sector rescued 586 people in fiscal year 2009, Border Patrol figures show, up from 443 the previous year.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org