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Although Border Crossings and Apprehensions Decrease, Migrant Deaths in Desert Still High

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Despite a steep decline in border crossings and apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant deaths have increased. And over the past 22 years, at least 2,238 migrants died crossing Arizona's southwestern desert, according to a new study.

The study released Wednesday by Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona found the typical migrant to perish in the desert is a man about 30 years old from central or southern Mexico who succumbs from exposure while trying to evade law enforcement. Women made up 20 percent of the deaths; teenagers and children as young as 10 accounted for 13 percent of deaths.

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Researchers blame the initial increase in deaths, and its continuation today, on poor immigration policies, '90s economic reform that displaced hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, and ramped-up border-enforcement tactics that increasingly push migrants into the harsh desert.

A funnel effect began in 1994 under President Bill Clinton with a program called "Operation Gatekeeper," pinching popular Texas and California migration routes, and migrants began coursing through the arid Arizona desert. The new routes trailed along barren, rock-filled mountains under much more extreme temperatures than before.

"That's when we saw the increased deaths...when they had to start immigrating through here," says Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.

Hikers, hunters, and law enforcement typically find the bodies, and most in southern Arizona end up in the Medical Examiner's office. It's Hess and his team who sort through the bloated corpses, skeletons, clothes, and, when they get lucky, identification left with the remains.

"For those who die in remote areas," the report says, "there is a longer period of time between death and recovery, which means more decomposition and further challenges in establishing cause of death."

In the '90s, the highest annual total of migrant bodies seen by the Medical Examiner's office was 21 (one of those years drew only five). But in 2000, it spiked to 71. The trend continued, jumping to 209 in 2007 and peaking at 225 in 2010.

The death toll seems to mirror increased Border Patrol staffing in the Southwest. In 2001, Border Patrol staff nearly tripled (to roughly 9,000 officers) from its numbers in the early '90s. The end of the following decade saw that amount nearly double, to 17,408 in 2009. Now the U.S. has more officers than ever patrolling its border, forcing migrants into increasingly risky routes. At one point, the load of bodies even forced the Medical Examiner's office to buy an extra unit to store corpses and bones.

Most migrants die from exposure (hypothermia or hyperthermia -- the extreme decline or elevation of body temperature), which killed 46 percent of the identified migrants that pass through the office, according to the report.

Deaths listed as undetermined in nature -- the second highest cause -- account for 36 percent, although researchers say they believe most of these can also be attributed to exposure. Hess says determining cause of death is near impossible in some cases, because by the time a wandering hunter or hiker spots the remains, what's left might be nothing more than scattered bits of skull or porcelain-white bones:

"If all you have are a skull or jaw bone left in the desert, there's almost no way to discover if those remains are a foreign national. Then the process is going to take a lot longer and may depend on DNA. But maybe there's clothing with the remains; maybe there's ID in the clothing."

Mexicans made up more than 80 percent of deceased crossers, with Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras following. (Researches surmise this might be because Central American migrants often ride atop trains that carry them to crossing points in Texas.)

Researchers also noted the regions in Mexico where migrants originated and how that data has changed throughout the years. In the early '90s, the majority of crossers came from northern Mexico. But migrants from southern and central Mexico soon outnumbered their northern counterparts, doubling their proportion of migrants by the early 2000s. Researchers attributed this shift to an economic policy passed years earlier that robbed many farmers in those areas of the jobs they'd held:

"This change can likely be attributed to increased migration from these regions, stemming from the implementation of North American Free Trade Agreement which displaced thousands of rural Mexicans."

Now, another policy might shift the death toll away from Arizona.

In recent years, migrants caught in Arizona increasingly have been shipped to far-off border towns in California and Texas, thinking that if the U.S. can disorient migrants, they'll give up and travel home. (One of the areas the U.S. dumps migrants caught in the Arizona desert -- Tamaulipas, Mexico -- is home to a continual cartel bloodbath for territory and has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico and the world.)

The study ends with a warning. It says that because America is repatriating many migrants to unfamiliar border towns, an explosion in migrant deaths is occurring in Texas border counties:

"Brooks County, which is nearly ten times smaller than Pima County in terms of geographical area, reported 129 deaths in calendar year 2012 compared to just 20 in 2010...Scholars and policy makers alike should be concerned with this drastic increase, which is likely related to increased border enforcement efforts including deportation practices."

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