Associated Press / Seattle Times
September 1, 2010
by AMANDA LEE MYERS and JULIE WATSON
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.
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.