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The U.S. says increased border security means fewer immigrants are getting into the country illegally. But a large number are dying as they try to get in. Since last fall, 150 bodies have been found in the rugged desert in just one Arizona county.

NPR's Ted Robbins has the story of one group of immigrants who survived the deadly heat, mostly because they got caught.

TED ROBBINS: All day long, buses pull up about 100 yards short of the traffic-choked Mariposa port of entry, marking the boundary between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. The buses carry illegal immigrants who got caught trying to cross from Mexico. If the immigrants have no criminal record, it's U.S. policy to simply drive them back to the border and drop them off.

How many people a day would you say come through here?

Ms. MARIETTA VALLET (Emergency medical technician, No More Deaths): Right now, about five or six hundred. In the spring, we're seeing up to twelve hundred people a day.

ROBBINS: Marietta Vallet is an emergency medical technician with the U.S. organization No More Deaths, which, along with the Sonoran state government, runs an aid station just on the Mexican side of the border. It's a couple of tents and a trailer on a patch of dirt in between traffic lanes.

Three guys just got off the bus and they're limping into the aid station right now.

The three men have bandages on their knees from falling on rocks in the desert. Volunteer Maria Delgado hands them each a piece of bread and a cup of soup. Jose, Luis and Edgar say they just spent two days and two nights walking north from the border west of here. They saw and smell things they'd rather forget.

(Soundbite of Spanish spoken)

Ms. VALLET: It was not an animal. It was a human being.

ROBBINS: The men say they passed a body decomposing in the heat. Marietta Vallet says it's not an uncommon story. She blames tighter security in safer urban areas for pushing people into the desert, as well as unscrupulous smugglers who guide naive crossers.

Ms. VALLET: The majority are from rural areas in Mexico, mainly southern Mexico. And I think a lot of time, people don't know what they're facing. If they come from Chiapas, they've never seen maybe a cactus before.

ROBBINS: Jose, Luis and Edgar are from Mexico City, fifteen hundred miles south of here. They came hoping to work in Houston. Jose is clearly in pain. Marietta removes one of his shoes and looks at his foot.

Ms. VALLET: It's definitely edema. It's very swollen, inflamed and some kind of rash as well. (Spanish spoken)

ROBBINS: Does it hurt a lot here? Yes, he says. Jose holds up his worn shoe, cactus spines pierce the sole.

Your shoes…

Ms. VALLET: So the spines are going through the bottom of the foot.

ROBBINS: The men walked about 50 miles, then ran out of water. Tired and dehydrated, they actually wanted to be caught so they went to a highway where the border patrol found them. Marietta treats Jose's injury.

Ms. VALLET: So I'm washing his feet with a weak mixture of water and iodine.

ROBBINS: The men say they are determined to cross. Crossing injured, of course, increases the chance they won't make it. So Marietta warns them to wait until they heal. The three men promised her they'll rest for a few days before trying again.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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