Despite fewer people migrating illegally through Southern Arizona, the number of border-crosser remains found during the last decade has not dropped below 140 a year, according to a new report.

Also, Central Americans are now making up a bigger share of the deaths each year, the new report from the University of Arizona found. Economic conditions in Central America, coupled with increasing violence there, is pushing more Central Americans to migrate north, said Daniel Martinez, assistant professor in the department of sociology at George Washington University and co-author of the report, which was released Wednesday.

Illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico - mostly Central Americans - have increased from 9 percent of all deaths between 2000 and 2005 to 17 percent between 2006 and 2012.

unknowns about deaths

Since 1990, more than 2,000 remains have been examined by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

But when it comes to migrant deaths, there still are a lot of unknowns.

"Nobody has the real number of people who have died while crossing illegally," said Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County's chief medical examiner and one of the authors of the report. "Part of the goal is to try to provide a national model to do that."

The way his office counts illegal immigrants' deaths is by using the date when the remains are found, but the people could have perished weeks, months or even years before they were discovered.

Nearly 800 remains, or 34 percent, haven't been identified. The Pima County office now handles more unidentified remains per capita than any other medical examiner's office in the country.

More in remote areas

People are also being discovered in more remote areas and in more decomposed conditions, the report states.

The leading cause of death between 2006 and 2012 is "undetermined," but Robin Reineke, co-author and doctoral candidate of the UA School of Anthropology, said there's a big possibility many of those deaths are a result of exposure to the elements.

"Keep in mind with these studies we are dealing with a brand new phenomenon with deaths in this country," said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, adjunct professor in Mexican-American Studies at the UA and a co-author.

"We don't call this a disaster in a legal sense," she said, "but in a sense we are dealing with a national disaster."

The increase in border deaths has coincided with intensified enforcement efforts across the border.

When border enforcement efforts first began in the early 1990s, remote areas along the California-Baja California border experienced significant increases in illegal-immigrant deaths.

In the first few years of the 2000s, the increase in deaths appeared to shift east into Southern Arizona, the report said. The number of remains found in Southern Arizona jumped from 19 in 1999 to 71 in 2000 - and doubled by 2002.

Now counties close to the south Texas-Tamaulipas border have begun reporting higher numbers of illegal immigrant deaths. For example, the number of remains found in Brooks County, a rural county in south Texas, went from 20 in 2010 to 129 in 2012.

With the proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill calling for even more border security measures, the number of illegal immigrants dying could continue rising, especially as the economy recovers, Martinez said.

Answers to illegal immigration "don't lie in more border security," he said.

Sen. Flake's viewpoint

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake "believes that the lack of a workable legal framework for foreign labor to enter and leave the country is more responsible for migrant deaths than an increase in border security, and that's a problem that the Senate immigration reform bill addresses," Flake's spokeswoman, Genevieve Rozansky, said in an email.

The current bill revamps guest-worker programs for high- and lower-skilled jobs and seeks to better match labor demands with supply, but it would also add up to $6.5 billion to securing the border.

Researchers said they hope policymakers consider the findings as they debate "what is arguably the single most important piece of immigration legislation in nearly three decades."

On StarNet: Search the border-death database at for the names of those who have died attempting to cross from Mexico.


• When comparing the number of illegal-immigrant deaths per 100,000 apprehensions, in 2011 it was nearly double what it was in 2009, from 79 to 147.

• The typical deceased illegal border crosser between 1990 and 2012 was male, around the age of 30 and from central or southern Mexico.

• 13 percent of deaths between 1990 and 2012 were of individuals between 10 and 19 years old.

Source: "A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012."

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo