JOHN YDSTIE, Host:
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, summer brings extreme heat and danger for those crossing into this country illegally. And not a day goes by without a rescue by Border Patrol agents. Over the last decade, the government has spent billions beefing up surveillance, manpower and fencing along the border. And fewer people are attempting to cross. But hundreds of migrants still die every year.
NPR's Southwest correspondent Ted Robbins is with us in our studios at NPR West. Welcome,. Ted.
TED ROBBINS: Good to be with you, John.
YDSTIE: Ted, you're normally based in Tucson, just north of the border. What's going on there right now?
ROBBINS: Well, I think it may be the least discussed aspect of the entire immigration and border security debate. As you mentioned, Border Patrol reports come out daily about rescues. I just got one on my email as I was stepping into the studio, and deaths are reported several times a week. The numbers add up to the equivalent of a large plane crash every year on U.S. soil. And it persists despite humanitarian aid efforts and Border Patrol efforts.
I went out into the desert with an agent just last week.
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ROBBINS: Robert Kiernan drives his pickup along a dirt road on King's Anvil Ranch southwest of Tucson. He is scanning for signs that people have been here. Kiernan is a BORSTAR agent: Border Search, Trauma and Rescue. It's nearly sun set, so the long shadows highlight any footprints in the dirt. It's also when border crossers start getting active. Sure enough, a call comes over the radio.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got two bodies walking northbound from the 34 Road. They're maybe a mile north.
ROBBINS: A Border Patrol truck loaded with radar and cameras spotted them. We turn around and drive to the location. After a short hike, we see two men hiding under brush next to a dry wash. The men could have been part of a larger group which scattered. They give up quietly. Agent Kiernan looks through their pockets and their backpacks - wire cutters, a steak knife, a pencil, toilet paper, snacks and water from a nearby cattle tank.
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ROBBINS: We walk back to the road, where other Border Patrol agents give them fresh water, which they gulp down. Kiernan says most crossers are unprepared for the journey.
ROBERT KIERNAN: And they're often lied to by the smugglers.
ROBBINS: Kiernan says smugglers tell crossers that Phoenix, where these two say they were headed to find construction work, is just a day's walk when it actually takes a week.
KIERNAN: 'Cause most of them probably wouldn't sign up for something if they knew...
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KIERNAN: ...they knew that they were going to be crossing into a region that could possibly take their life. Business wouldn't be that great for the smugglers, so they got to lie to them to get them to, you know, to take that hike.
ROBBINS: Agent Eric Cantu says they were probably trying to make it to a highway a few miles away where they'd get picked up. He asks the men how long they'd been walking.
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ROBBINS: They say they crossed the border about a day and a half ago and made it 30 miles north before being caught. In some ways, they're lucky. Dr. Greg Hess opens the door to a refrigerated morgue. Inside are those who ran out of luck. Hess is the Pima County medical examiner. White plastic body bags are stacked on shelves up to the ceiling.
GREG HESS: We probably have about 250-ish people in there.
ROBBINS: And what portion of these people would you say are undocumented migrants?
HESS: Almost all of them. Almost all of them.
ROBBINS: And these are just the migrants who haven't been identified. Someone from the Mexican consulate comes to the facility's other morgue several times a week, trying to I.D. bodies and then notify relatives back home. In this morgue, each bag has a John or Jane Doe tag. Some bags contain just a few bones. Some have been here for years. In another room, small lockers contain baggies filled with migrants' personal effects.
HESS: This is Case 1501. And you can see we have a Mexican identification with a name. And we also have a piece of paper with phone numbers, there's some CDs and a portion of a watch that's still running.
ROBBINS: The I.D. shows a healthy-looking young man, but his remains are likely just a skeleton, so there are no fingerprints. And efforts to trace him through DNA have not been successful. His remains will stay here until someone claims them or he's cremated.
YDSTIE: That's NPR's Southwest correspondent Ted Robbins, who is at NPR West with us. So, Ted, there are fewer people crossing the border illegally and there's more security than ever. How do you square that with the fact that border deaths have remained constant? It would seem they should be dropping.
ROBBINS: Right, John. Apprehensions of illegal crossing are down two-thirds from their peak and so you'd expect deaths to be down about that much as well. Not so far, although there was some relatively good news last month in July; only 21 bodies were found, if you can call that, you know, good news. But that's after 61 bodies were discovered last July. So, that was a huge spike last July. Maybe it's a start of a favorable trend, although the Pima County medical examiner says southern Arizona's still on pace to reach its 150 to 200 deaths this year. At least one humanitarian group has been mapping where the bodies are found. And those maps show that over the years people are being found in more remote areas, which has coincided with the buildup of enforcement in urban areas where people used to cross.
YDSTIE: So, still, a big problem. What's being done to address it?
ROBBINS: The Border Patrol has 40 BORSTAR agents and 200 EMTs in the Tucson sector. Last week, I was told that it's training two new classes of BORSTAR agents right now. Humanitarian groups continue to patrol the areas themselves. But they want more rescue beacons, more water stations, more access to areas. There's a lot of public land out there and it's going to take more cooperation from the Border Patrol and from federal and state land managers on public lands and more cooperation from the Tohono O'odham Nation, which is the Native American tribe along the border. There's controversy there. There are a lot of people that even the tribal government acknowledges are engaged in human and drug smuggling for the money. Those folks have an interest in keeping the flow coming across.
YDSTIE: NPR's southwest correspondent Ted Robbins. Ted, thanks very much.
ROBBINS: It's good to be with you.
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