"Decade of Death," a special report in Sunday's Arizona Daily Star, leads us to one certain conclusion: The United States must find ways to keep illegal border crossers from dying in our backyard.

Nearly 2,000 people, mostly Mexicans, have died in Arizona since 2001, and as reporter Brady McCombs and photographer Dean Knuth revealed, the cost financially and in human suffering is great.

Their six-page special report focused on the role of the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, which handles each body found in Pima, Pinal and Santa Cruz counties. That totals 1,700.

There are so many dead that over the decade, the county has hired an additional doctor and a full-time anthropologist, and has paid $350,000 for a second storage cooler.

It's usually easy to determine what kills illegal border crossers: heat. It's a gruesome death.

They die in pain as their temperatures reach as high as 108 degrees. Bodies are bloated and blackened by the sun, even eaten by animals.

The main part of the medical examiner's job is identifying the remains, a task made more difficult because smugglers tell crossers not to carry identification or to carry fake IDs.

The goal of the 27 employees at the Medical Examiner's Office is to give each body a name and to work with foreign consulates to locate families to receive the dead.

When the office fails in its mission, counties bury the unknown as paupers.

The office has more than 770 open reports of missing people. One employee told McCombs that for families, not knowing what happened is "beyond grief. It's terror."

Reducing the deaths in the desert won't be quick or easy, and the main responsibility rests with federal governments.

• Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries must build their economies so their citizens have good jobs at home. As long as people are desperate to feed and educate their families, nothing will stop them from heading north.

• Mexico must have more of a federal law-enforcement presence on its side of the border to shut down people-smuggling operations. Smugglers charge hundreds and even thousands of dollars to lead people into the Arizona desert, and they know the risk. The minute a customer slows down or becomes sick, smugglers leave that person behind without concern for whether he or she lives or dies.

• Mexico should improve its public-awareness campaign to better educate citizens that trying to cross the desert can be lethal. Those campaigns use facts about the desert and the death count, along with interviews with grieving relatives. Perhaps it's time for a photo of a mummified body or a skeleton without a head. That's horrifying, but it's hardly worse than the death count.

• The United States must continue to improve security at the border itself. The number of Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector has more than doubled to 3,200 over the decade, and the number of apprehensions since 2004 also has doubled. Deaths, however, remain steady at about 170 a year.

Better security elsewhere on the U.S.-Mexico border is pushing crossers into more dangerous stretches of Arizona. At one time, authorities thought the rugged nature of much of our 378-mile border would be a natural deterrent.

That was wrong. The Tucson Sector accounts for 44 percent of all deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2001.

The truth is, people are getting in - and they're certainly not all dying. One measure of border security will be when the number of deaths declines.

• The United States must establish a guest-worker program under which employers first convince the federal government that they are unable to hire enough U.S. workers. If they prove their case, they'd be allowed to recruit in Mexico and elsewhere.

It's jobs that drive illegal immigration. People leave Mexico because they cannot find good ones, and we're ready to hire them to pick our crops, work in our restaurants and repair our homes.

Reasonable people disagree about immigration policy, but 1,700 people shouldn't die looking for work. The cost is too high.

Arizona Daily Star