Friday, September 24, 2010

Near-record 236 bodies found at Mexico-Ariz. border in year

USA Today
September 24, 2010
by Dennis Wagner

PHOENIX — The second-highest number of bodies on record has been recovered along the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico, border the past 12 months.
According to Coalicio´n de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Coalition), which gathers data on border-crossing fatalities in Arizona, 236 bodies have been found in fiscal year 2010, which ends Sept. 30.

The record of 282 bodies was set in fiscal 2005.

"We've passed the number of remains recovered last year," said Kat Rodriguez, coordinator for the non-profit. "This has been a horrid summer."

The group gets data from medical examiners in Pima, Pinal, Cochise and Yuma counties in Arizona, as well as other sources, Rodriguez says. The tally is not comprehensive, because some counties don't track undocumented immigrant deaths. Rodriguez says there is no national registry keeping track of border fatalities.

According to the organization's website, which lists locations, dates and causes of death, most victims perished from exposure — heat, cold or thirst. Some suffered gunshot wounds. In many cases, Rodriguez said, remains were too damaged to determine cause of death.

Other immigrant-advocacy groups say fatalities appear to be increasing even as the number of illegal border crossers has declined the past five years. Using a formula based on the number of fatalities and arrests, Sarah Roberts, a nurse volunteer with No More Deaths, a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid to border crossers, describes the past year as the "most lethal" ever.

Roberts and Colleen Agle, a Border Patrol spokeswoman, cite several reasons for the grim statistics.

Roberts says tighter enforcement has pushed smugglers and undocumented immigrants to make longer treks deeper into the desert. She added that this summer was especially brutal. Extreme nighttime heat saps energy and depletes fluids, even from immigrants who hike after dark, she says.

Roberts and Agle say that increases in Border Patrol staffing have enabled agents to scour previously neglected desert areas and find skeletal remains of victims who may have died before this year.

Not among the remains so far is a missing 13-year-old, Nelson Omar Chilel Lopez, whose mother, Fermina Lopez Cash, refuses to believe her son died in the desert after crossing the U.S. border near Sonoita, Ariz., more than two months ago.

"I am afraid, yes," she says. "But I won't believe my son died that way. I can't."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

FWS Southwest Director: People, Not Species, Toughest Part of Job

New York Times
September 23, 2010
by April Reese

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It was late 2007, and the Department of Homeland Security's effort to block passage of drug smugglers and illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico by building several hundred miles of new reinforced fencing along the border was in full tilt.

But when the project reached Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, comprising about 118,000 acres of southern Arizona, Homeland Security hit a snag.

Refuge manager Mitch Ellis informed DHS officials that he could not approve the fence project, planned for about a 1-mile stretch along the refuge's southern perimeter, because it would bisect habitat for the endangered jaguar and other species in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Frustrated with Ellis's decision, which required approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Region 2 headquarters in Albuquerque, DHS took its case to Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle.

Tuggle, who was appointed to the Southwest post just before Congress mandated construction of the fence, came up with a compromise: FWS would give Homeland Security the refuge land it needed for the fence, but in return FWS would receive lands of comparable ecological value elsewhere in the area, of the service's choosing (Land Letter, Nov. 29, 2007).

The decision, which allowed DHS to avoid exercising a controversial waiver authority granted to it by Congress to bypass federal environmental laws to expedite construction of the border fence, was unpopular not only with environmental groups and some members of the public, but also with the refuge staff.

But the 56-year-old Tuggle, who has one of the toughest jobs in the agency, is not one to wilt in the face of a challenge.

That quality, he says, has served him well in his four and a half years as the commander of the a region that has proven to be a hotbed of politically thorny issues, he says.

'I learn where you're coming from'

On any given day, Tuggle, whose region stretches from Oklahoma to Arizona, could be contending with efforts to recover Mexican wolves, the development of oil and gas resources in prairie chicken habitat, illegal drug smuggling through refuge lands, or how to ensure the survival of endangered animals and plants along the border fence that is designed to be impenetrable to smugglers and illegal immigrants.

In fact, upon arriving in the Southwest after a stint as acting special assistant to the director in Washington, D.C., Tuggle set his sights on fixing the beleaguered Mexican wolf program, determined to bring the tiny population back from the brink amid a backdrop of vehement local opposition (Land Letter, May 13).

And he has proven himself unafraid to take a strong stand. Discussing the spate of recent illegal shootings of Mexican wolves, whose population dropped to 42 animals last year, Tuggle makes no bones about his view of the perpetrators.

"People who are shooting wolves are criminals," he said flatly, sitting at a table near the window of his expansive corner office in downtown Albuquerque. "I will do whatever it takes to handle that illegal activity."

Amid the books, native pottery and stuffed animals filling his large office bookcase is a pair of buttons: One, from Defenders of Wildlife, depicts a Mexican wolf with the words "Wanted Alive" printed underneath; the other depicts the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association logo. In Tuggle's view, considering both perspectives is a critical part of doing his job.

"I'm a very good listener because that's the only way I learn where you're coming from," he said. "That's how you sustain a coalition."

Yet Tuggle still faces criticism from local officials and residents in the Mexican wolf recovery area, which straddles the New Mexico-Arizona border, that he does not listen well enough.

For instance, his office recently established an "interdiction fund" to pay ranchers for livestock lost to wolves and financially support other measures aimed at reducing wolf-livestock conflicts, such as hiring range riders to deter wolves. But some local officials have complained that the stakeholder group that will decide how the money is spent will be weighted in favor of conservationists (Land Letter, March 25).

But while people on both sides of the issue may disagree with Tuggle, they always know where he stands, said Eva Sargent, southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. "He's very sort of straight-talking, I think not only with us but with the ranchers and all the stakeholders," she said. "Even if you don't agree with what he says, ... you pretty much understand where he's coming from."

At times, FWS, as the agency responsible for upholding one of the most embattled environmental laws -- the Endangered Species Act -- also clashes with other federal agencies over projects that could harm protected wildlife and plants. The challenge is most evident in the Southwest, where border security has become a major policy issue, leading to the construction of hundreds of miles of new fence, including across ecologically important public lands.

In Texas and Arizona, where a string of wildlife refuges harbor some of the last vestiges of habitat for the ocelot, jaguar and other threatened and endangered species, Tuggle and his refuge managers have undertaken sensitive negotiations with Homeland Security officials to try to mitigate the damage from the fence.

"I think Dr. Tuggle has done a fair job," said Ellis, the former manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, who now oversees the Southwest Arizona National Wildlife Refuge Complex, including the Kofa, Imperial and Cibola refuges. "I think it's very difficult trying to reconcile our agency's mission with the mission of the DHS. It's hard to have win-win situations."

That said, Ellis acknowledges that he and his supervisor do not always see eye to eye, as evidenced by their difference of opinion over the border fence project at Buenos Aires NWR.

"I would have liked to have seen FWS take a firmer stand and say with that particular pedestrian barrier, giving them a permit was not consistent with our laws," Ellis said. "The public needs to see we're at odds here."

Tuggle, who has a doctorate in zoology, said that while the science on a resource issue is usually clear, it is dealing with the divergent views among various interests that is challenging.

"Natural resource management is not difficult; people management is difficult," he said.

Ruffled agency feathers

That can extend to his own workforce as well. While Tuggle describes his management style as "open and inclusive," he has drawn criticism for failing to respect the expertise of his employees in the field.

"There's almost a kind of parental attitude toward the project leaders in the field," said one senior FWS field manager, who asked not to be named. "A very scolding tone at times. We've got some very experienced project leaders doing good work. But the impression they've gotten is, 'You guys in the field don't know what you're doing.' There's no trust."

Better communication from Region 2 headquarters would go a long way in resolving the problem, the field manager added.

Tuggle admitted that his decisions are not always popular with FWS employees. But, he added, field managers sometimes fail to understand other factors that must be taken into account in species decisions.

"That's a fair criticism," he said of the complaint that he sometimes contradicts his field staff. "There are a lot of times that recommendations come in from the field which don't comport with the reality of the decisions we have to make. I think I try to communicate about the decision, but they don't always like the decision. But I always respect their expertise."

Tuggle recalled a project proposed for Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona a few years ago. When an electric utility applied for a permit to run a power line through the refuge, along the route of an existing line, Tuggle approved the project, even though refuge officials opposed it.

"There were a lot of people who were very upset I made that decision," Tuggle said. "But I stand by it. That was one of the more controversial ones, but I think we negotiated it in a fair way."

Tuggle acknowledged that he can be tough at times, but said he sees himself as fair. "I'm not really a bullying type," he said. "I'd much rather get flies with sugar, not salt."

While Tuggle has drawn internal flak for decisions that contradict the recommendations of his staff, he also has a reputation for defending his employees when they are in the political hot seat.

Mike Hawkes, who retired as manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge last May, said that when his staff drew fire for issuing littering citations to a humanitarian group that placed water jugs in the desert for illegal border crossers, Tuggle encouraged the staff to continue their enforcement efforts and "let the public go ahead and see us doing our jobs."

"He does seem to back up his field folks," Hawkes said. "He stuck his neck out and took the heat occasionally. If we decided to do something, he wouldn't back out of it for political reasons later on. He provided back-up."

Ellis agreed. "When issues are important and they need to be championed, he's stepped up, and he's taken some difficult issues forward," he said, citing a decision Tuggle made to cull mountain lions on Kofa National Wildlife Refuge to help conserve bighorn sheep (Land Letter, May 27). "When we need support at the regional level, he will take them on, and he's a good spokesperson for those issues."

Diversifying the ranks

When he is not negotiating the rough political terrain of endangered species and refuge management, Tuggle, who is African-American, is helping lead the charge to bring greater diversity to FWS and also to raise the profile of wildlife conservation within minority communities.

"I think there's a pool of people we haven't tapped that don't look like the rest of us that we need to bring in," he said. "We need to continue to help the new generation understand the gift that's been given to us so that they will inherit that stewardship sensibility."

FWS is doing more outreach to college students, encouraging them to apply for internships to explore conservation work, he said. The agency also visits minority communities to try to generate more interest in wildlife conservation and natural resource careers, he added.

Tuggle, who is known to hand out copies of Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods," about the modern disconnect between children and nature, also strongly supports providing opportunities for city kids to get outside. Recalling that he developed his own love for the natural world during summer visits to his grandmother's house in Georgia, Tuggle said that exposure to flora and fauna is key in putting more children on the path to conservation and wildlife careers.

In fact, the very future of conservation in the United States may depend on it, he said.

"If you look at conservation in the world, the United States is the leader," he said. "If the U.S. has the best conservation ethic in the world, it's reflective of the people. And if the demographics of those people is changing ... there might be people who don't think endangered species are important, they might not think habitat is important. We need to get to those people right away, and help them understand that that's part of what makes this country great."

The country's public lands are part of its national heritage, and everyone has a stake in natural resource management, he added.

"It really is a patriotic issue," he said. "Because this country has been founded on the greatness of the resources of this country."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Border Patrol gives contract to firm stocked with former insiders

Los Angeles Times
September 21, 2010
by Ken Dilanian

The Border Patrol wants its leaders to talk to one another, and the agency is willing to pay some former government employees nearly half a million dollars to help make that happen.

In an example of how common it has become for government agencies to outsource seemingly routine tasks to former officials, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has awarded a "strategic consulting" contract worth up to $481,000 over five years to a small firm staffed by former agency insiders.

One of the three major tasks outlined in the deal is to "facilitate discussions among senior Border Patrol leaders" at conferences near the agency headquarters in Washington, according to the contract documents. The fees work out to about $240 an hour — not including travel expenses or the cost of the conferences.

Among those who will benefit from the contract are the agency's former commissioner and the husband of a current agency spokeswoman. It's legal as long as the officials observe a one-year ban on landing work from their former agency.

"It really is just contracting as usual," said Allison Stanger, a Middlebury College professor who detailed the explosive growth of government contracting in her 2009 book "One Nation Under Contract." "When contractors are doing so much of the work of government, these sorts of private companies are seen as extensions of government. When former agency employees are involved, the lines are blurred even further."

In a statement, Homeland Security Department spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the contract was intended to "solicit independent, expert input for CBP's ongoing efforts to design a 21st century border security strategic framework," and that the agency "will not utilize this or any other contracts to organize conferences for CBP officials."

The contract documents say the consultants will facilitate discussions at the conferences, not organize them.

In July, the agency requested proposals for strategic consulting. The request sought three senior consultants for a total of 389 hours a year, with four years of renewable options.

The consultants' role is to help Border Patrol leaders "discuss strategy, policy, outreach, development and the delivery of a unified corporate direction and message," the documents said.

After a competition, the contract was awarded to Sentinel HS Group, a 12-person company that includes Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and then U.S. Customs and Border Protection from September 2001 to November 2005.

The firm, which reported annual revenue of $3.2 million in contract documents signed last week, was founded by one of Bonner's top aides and includes three other former agency officials.

Among the firm's "senior consultants" is Michael Ivahnenko, who worked at the border agency from November 2003 to January 2008. He is the husband of Kelly Ivahnenko, a Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer based in Washington.

Kelly Ivahnenko said in an e-mail that she played no role in the contract award and did not speak to any agency decision-makers about it.

In addition to Michael Ivahnenko, Sentinel Chief Executive Brian Goebel said he would work as one of the agency's other two senior consultants, along with Joshua Kussman, a former senior policy advisor at the agency.

Goebel, who said he was speaking for all members of the firm, said Sentinel won the contract through "fair and open competition."

"There are circumstances in which the government needs outside assistance," he said. "From our vantage point, there are people who bring specialized knowledge. … Sometimes it's a question of extra arms and legs, to help people who have to do their day job."

Goebel said he worked as an advisor to Bonner at the agency in 2001.,0,4565724.story

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tribe says border fence restricts sacred rites

USA Today
July 15, 2008
by Tim Murphy

WASHINGTON — Calling it an affront to religious freedom, representatives of an Arizona Indian tribe have asked the federal government to halt construction of a border fence across the tribe's Arizona reservation.

Leaders of the Tohono O'odham nation say the fence, currently being built along the U.S.-Mexican border by the Department of Homeland Security, will prevent members of their nation from crossing into Mexico for traditional religious ceremonies.

"This wall and the construction of this wall has destroyed our communities, our burial sites and ancient Tohono O'odham routes throughout our lands," said Ofelia Rivas, according to the Washington Times.

Rivas argued that the fence will violate the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guarantees free exercise of traditional religious practices for Native Americans. She said that the fence would disrupt such practices by limiting travel to and from O'odham land in Mexico.

The Tohono O'odham reservation straddles the Mexican border for 75 miles in Arizona, and extends south into Mexico. According to the 2000 census, 18,000 people live on the reservation, which spans an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

Rivas' statement is the latest salvo from the Tohono O'odham nation protesting the fence. The community has been at odds with the federal government in recent years over how best to deal with undocumented immigrants and smugglers who cross through tribal lands.

Testifying in front of a House subcommittee last April, the nation's chairman, Ned Norris Jr., called the Department of Homeland Security "inflexible" and "unreasonable," and framed the fence as part of a larger problem facing the nation.

"Our land is now cut in half, with O'odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes, and families divided," Norris said. "We did not cross the 75 miles of border within our reservation lands. The border crossed us."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Former National Guardsman who stole scraps of border fence sentenced

Arizona Daily Star
September 16, 2010
by Brian Pedersen

A former Air National Guardsman has been sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for stealing scrap metal from from a project to build a border fence in Arizona.

Wyoming resident Robert J. Kelley, 50, was found guilty in March of one count of theft of government property, a crime that could have sent him away for 10 years.

Kelley was part of a National Guard taskforce that helped build fences along the U.S. border with Mexico in 2007 and 2008. He was accused of stealing at least five truckloads of scrap metal, selling the materials for $11,450, according to U.S. District Court records.

Prosecutors say Kelley, who spent more than 25 years in the National Guard, used money from the sale of the scrap metal to buy things such as a handgun, a garage door opener, cowboy boots and tools.

In addition to the prison time Kelley was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Cindy Jorgenson to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay nearly $43,000 in restitution, according to court records.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mexican Border Fence Cost $3 Billion, Is Political Idiocy, HBO Show Says

September 14, 2010
by Dave Shiflett

If idiocy were a capital crime, at least 73 percent of Congress would be facing the hangman.

That’s the percentage of legislators who supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which created one of the most stunning boondoggles in U.S. history, at least according to “The Fence (La Barda),” which airs on HBO tomorrow at 8 p.m. New York time.

Emmy-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) starts out with the project’s major problem: There’s lots more holes than fence. The U.S.-Mexican border stretches over 2,000 miles; the fence only runs along 700 of them.

In one of several this-can’t-really-be-true segments, a member of the Minutemen, a vigilante patrol group, tells Kennedy that if undocumented migrants don’t want to scale the fence where he’s being interviewed, all they need do is travel a mile to where the fence abruptly ends. Which it does, creating one of many huge gaps in the “protective” barrier.

Bill Odle, who owns a ranch in the area, says the fence is “not performing its function,” though that depends on how you define function. To the 7,000 construction workers, 350 engineers and 19 construction companies that built the barricade, at a cost of about $3 billion, the fence represents manna from Washington.

Spectacular Failure

But it has spectacularly failed to serve its stated purposes, Kennedy says, which are to to prevent terrorism and slow the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the U.S.

Kennedy, who narrates the film, interviews fence-jumpers, smugglers (called coyotes) of human beings, Border Patrol agents and members of various Minuteman groups, one of whom insists a “full-blown invasion from the south” is under way that threatens to turn the U.S. into a “Third World cesspool.”

“My gosh!” sputters Glenn Beck in archived footage. “We better wake up soon!”

The need to sober up seems more like it.

Kennedy, who retains a sense of humor throughout the film, says the construction of the fence did not represent the nation’s greatest engineering feat. Part of the stretch through New Mexico, for instance, was built 6 feet into Mexican territory and had to be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of millions.

Speed Bump

While the fence has deterred wildlife from using traditional migration routes, it is little more than a speed bump for many of the estimated 500,000 undocumented aliens who cross the border each year. Footage from cameras posted along the fence show people scaling it with little trouble; in a truly hilarious scene, a pickup truck roars up a ramp and flies over the barricade as if hellbent for Los Angeles in time for the cocktail hour.

Kennedy points out that the drug trade has not been slowed, nor has the fence deterred any terrorist activity. Then again, she says, of the 29 acts of terrorism that have taken place on U.S. soil in the past 25 years, none of the perpetrators entered the U.S. from Mexico. It seems terrorists prefer jetting into New York to trekking across the blazing desert.

If the fence has had any effect, it’s been to force Mexicans to cross the border in more remote desert areas. Kennedy says that has driven up the death rate, which now averages two people a day.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security froze funding of the project. Maintenance costs over the next 25 years are estimated at $49 billion, according to the film.

“We don’t care about fences,” says one coyote. “We’ll just find another way to cross.” Maybe it’s time for a fresh trek to the drawing board.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Plan endorses protection for elusive ocelot

Arizona Daily Star
September 2, 2010
by Tony Davis

The U.S. should help the ocelot in Arizona and northern Mexico by protecting its best habitat and movement corridors, identifying major threats, and researching the cat's habitat needs, a new federal recovery plan says.

But the endangered cat could get help in this state from another human source - global warming over the next several decades, biologists familiar with the animal say.

The new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan proposes spending about $60 million over at least the next six years to help out the ocelot in Arizona and Sonora and in the border region of south Texas. There, ocelots have had breeding populations, although their numbers are down to fewer than 25 today.

Authorities have confirmed records of only two ocelots in Arizona since 1964 - both in the past year.

Global warming could draw ocelots from northern Mexico, where they are much more common, according to cat experts from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and the Sky Island Alliance, a Tucson conservation group. It's important to make this area hospitable to ocelots so they'll thrive under such conditions, they said.

"I think the chances are better than even that ocelots will expand into the U.S," said Paul Beier, an NAU wildlife ecology professor who sat on an expert team that worked with the service in preparing the recovery plan. "But are we talking about the next 30 or 50 or 10 years? I really don't know the answer. We are exceeding the most pessimistic projections for emissions of greenhouse gases," Beier said. "We're cranking it out, and the world is doing absolutely nothing to slow down that process. It will cause changes in the distribution of animals."

There is a possibility that ocelots have always been in Arizona in very low numbers, simply because it's so easy for rare animals to go undetected, said Melanie Culver, a U.S. Geological Survey geneticist who also worked on the recovery team. It's possible that the population will move north with climate change, said Culver, assistant leader of the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arizona.

The recovery plan is less optimistic, warning that drought and wildfires triggered by climate change could make the cats more vulnerable. "It's hard to predict right now with what is going to happen with climate change," said Brady McGee, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Albuquerque. "The ocelot likes very dense and thick vegetation. If the temperature is going to increase in the Southwest, a lot of climatic models show it drying out as well."

Efforts to help ocelots also must consider the wall and fences that now mark much of the Arizona-Sonora border, the ocelot experts say. A part of that fencing - it's not clear how much - will prevent ocelots and many other animals from entering this country, although other parts could be open to the ocelots, experts said.

The Wildlife Service's McGee agreed that the border fence is a barrier to ocelots. He said the recovery plan addresses that issue to a limited extent - "maybe as much as we can at this time."

Ocelot records

• An ocelot has been found at an Indian archaeological site on the San Pedro River east of Redington Pass.

• In 1964, a picture was taken of an ocelot that was shot and killed in the Huachuca Mountains.

• During the next 55 years, more than a half-dozen other reliable reported ocelot sightings occurred in Southern Arizona.

• In November 2009, the Sky Island Alliance's remote camera photographed an ocelot in Cochise County.

• In April 2010, the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported that an ocelot killed by a vehicle was found on a highway near Globe. The department is waiting for a necropsy report on its origin.

• The Sky Island Alliance has photos of three northern Sonora ocelots. It has confirmed that another one was trapped and that a fifth ocelot was killed by a car in that area.

Ocelot recovery

One problem in setting up a recovery strategy for Arizona ocelots is that many things about the animal here still aren't known, said a Tucson biologist and cat specialist.

"What type of habitats do these cats like? Where do they move? When do they do it?" said Sergio Avila, a biologist for the Sky Island Alliance, a conservation group that has photographed ocelots in Arizona and northern Sonora. "It's really difficult to identify a certain type of habitat or vegetation for it. Even elevation - we don't know." Ocelots living in south Texas, in Mexico south of that, and in southern Sonora live in dense tropical thorn-scrub stands - a product of the areas' wet weather. Scientists have said that global warming could bring thorn-scrub into Arizona - if it is accompanied by robust monsoons. Today, climate experts are split over whether global warming will bring more or fewer summer storms. But in northern Sonora, the vegetation where ocelots have been found resembles grasslands and shrubs of Southern Arizona's mountains, except it's thicker down there, Avila said. "Do ocelots need thorn-scrub? We don't know," he said.

Ariz. desert crossing lures migrants, despite deadly risks

Associated Press / Seattle Times
September 1, 2010

Hector Ortega stumbled across the body of a fellow migrant as he walked across Arizona's desert in the searing summer heat. He tried not to look too closely.

With nothing to be done for the dead, Ortega and the others trudged on, guided by a smuggler across the U.S. border, determined to complete their illegal odyssey as they endured record-high temperatures and fever-pitch resentment.

At 64, the farm laborer with a weathered face, strong hands and silver hair protruding from his baseball cap was unfazed by the body, someone's journey cut short near a stand of scrub bush and cactus.

"What can you do about it in the desert?" he asked.

Deaths of illegal immigrants in Arizona have soared this summer toward their highest levels since 2005, a fact that has surprised many who thought that the furor over the state's new immigration law and the 100-plus degree heat would draw them elsewhere along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

But at the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz., the body bags are stacked on stainless-steel shelves from floor to ceiling. A refrigerated truck has been brought in to handle the overflow at the multimillion-dollar facility.

In July, 59 people died, 40 in the first two weeks when nighttime temperatures were the highest in history, hovering in the low 90s. The single-month death count is second only to July 2005, when 68 bodies were found.

Of this July's deaths, 44 were on the Tohono O'odham Nation, a reservation the size of Connecticut that shares 75 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico.

Eighteen more people died in the first 23 days of August.

"Easier" crossing

Even with the prospect of a painful death and the bitter wrath they face in Arizona, immigrants, including Ortega, say the state's vast, sparsely populated terrain is still the best place for border jumpers.

"In Tijuana, you have two walls that you have to get over," said Ortega, who first came across in 1976 to work in West Coast agricultural fields. "This is much easier here. You just have to watch out for the snakes. That's why I prefer to walk in the daytime and not at night."

He admits he's afraid when he crosses, but said, "It's worth the risk."

Even though — after two days of traversing the desert — he and his group were caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents when the group reached a freeway and its ride wasn't there.

Resting at a shelter for failed border crossers atop a steep hill in Mexico overlooking Nogales, Ortega expanded on his motives. "It's the only way to make a little money to support my family," he said.

The shelter is a simple but large home with warnings about the dangers of the crossing posted on its walls. It gives those who have been sent back across the border a hot meal of tortillas, rice and beans, and provides bunk beds stacked three high.

One room has been converted into a chapel. On a recent night, a woman sobbed quietly while another migrant tried to comfort her.

Ortega knows risks. He is from Apatzingán in Michoacán, where drug gangs have shot up federal agents and terrorized the impoverished farm town.

Roberto Hernandez de Rosas, 18, said his family paid a smuggler $1,500 to take him and his brother across the Arizona desert and on to Los Angeles.

Hernandez's brother had made the trip three times, and the smuggler told them Arizona was still the easiest place to cross.

He was told it would cost twice as much to cross from Tijuana, where smugglers sell immigrants fake documents to walk through the port of entry.

"The town where I'm from, it's like being in jail, it's like a death," said Hernandez, who is from a mountain village in the impoverished southern state of Puebla. "You have to think twice about crossing the desert, but when you don't have any money, you need to look for a better life."

Back to the shelter

Hernandez and his brother were seen by a Border Patrol helicopter in the morning after walking through the desert during the night. Authorities returned Hernandez to Mexico but his brother was jailed because he'd been deported before.

Most of those who trickled into the shelter planned to try the crossing again, shrugging off Arizona's new law giving local authorities the power to arrest them, a law stayed by a federal court order. They are also unfazed by the Mexican government's warning to its citizens to avoid the state.

Sofia Gomez, of an aid group called Humane Borders, said crossers are traveling through even more remote areas than in previous years. At the same time, anger over illegal immigration has led to people shooting up the water stations her group has placed in the desert.

"They're taking a higher risk and they're not making it," Gomez said.

The body count for the year is at 171, the same number the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office had seen at this time in 2007, the year the office saw a record 217 deaths.

Most of the dead were young, healthy men, at least at the outset of their trips. By the time they reach the morgue, many are in advanced stages of decomposition and beyond recognition. Bag after bag is tagged with "John Doe" or "Jane Doe" as officials wait for families to report loved ones missing.

"We thought the political climate in Arizona would be a significant deterrent to people crossing, but as far as the deaths are concerned, they certainly have been what looks like is going to be the highest they've ever been," said the morgue's Dr. Eric Peters.

Rescuers and smugglers

Agency statistics show that Border Patrol agents helped 1,281 people last fiscal year. That's up from 1,264 rescues the previous fiscal year, but down from the record high of 2,845 rescues in fiscal 2006.

Border Patrol Agent Colleen Agle, who works in the agency's Tucson sector, said smugglers often lie to immigrants, telling them they'll only walk a couple of hours when they walk for days.

Even so, the agency discourages water stations because authorities say it encourages people to risk the journey.

Kevin Riley, 28, of Hopewell, N.J., came to the desert a year ago to volunteer for No More Deaths, a humanitarian group.

He and other mostly 20-something volunteers from across the country hike up to 12 miles a day to fill desert water tanks stationed along popular migrant paths that cross terrain dotted with palos verdes, mesquites and saguaro.

Riley recently found a 34-year-old man who had been vomiting for days and was curled up with cramps, no longer able to walk. The man was rescued and hospitalized for four days.

He was one of the lucky ones.