MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand here for the week while Melissa Block is off on a reporting trip.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It could be the recession, or the thousands of new agents on patrol, or the fence that is almost finished, or all of the above. Whatever the cause, there has been a decrease in the number of people caught while illegally crossing the border with Mexico. And that number is down for the second year in a row. Still, the rate at which people are dying while trying to cross is up.
NPR's Ted Robbins went out on patrol with border agents to find out why.
TED ROBBINS: Border Patrol search and rescue agent Paul DuBois(ph) and I are hiking 50 miles north of the border.
Mr. PAUL DUBOIS (Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue): Omaha, you copy? Bravo one. Bravo 2-6.
ROBBINS: DuBois is in radio contact with three other agents on the rugged, cactus covered mountains.
Mr. DUBOIS: Yeah, we're - I thought I saw Omaha in a low ravine, maybe a small saddle between two reasonably sized peaks here.
(Soundbite of a helicopter)
ROBBINS: The area is so remote, DuBois needs air support.
Mr. DUBOIS: I have a clearing right behind me. I'm about - I might be right door in 200 meters.
ROBBINS: You could hear there's a Border Patrol helicopter that's been called in. Some agents on the ground spotted a group of apparently illegal crossers. And the pilot, when he flew over, said that he saw a small girl in the group. So we're trying to catch up to them. We don't yet know if the group of about a dozen is injured or just startled at being caught, but they scattered an hour or so ago. And by now, in the heat of the day, they and we need water.
Mr. DUBOIS: Okay, let's do this. Let's get the water drop in wherever it needs to go.
ROBBINS: The helicopter lowers four one-gallon jugs and flies away. All but three of the group have escaped, including the girl. Two women and a man remain, sitting on the ground in custody. The man says his name is Elario(ph). He's says he's from Michoacan, Mexico, on his way to Florida for work.
Mr. DUBOIS: How long has he been walking?
ELARIO: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. DUBOIS: Four days from la linea?
ROBBINS: Four days in the desert from the border led by a coyote, a human smuggler. They're not injured, only dehydrated. Agent DuBois says there's no way anyone can prepare for this.
Mr. DUBOIS: I think you're dealing with individuals at - in most cases are dealing with a dire situation.
ROBBINS: And at home.
Mr. DUBOIS: At home. And they think this is the best option, and they may be blinded to the reality of what's in store for them. You can't carry enough water. You can't carry enough food supplies. You're going to have medical complications, perhaps.
ROBBINS: What's happened over the last decade is that the easier places to cross have been closed, so people are being pushed into isolated areas. Agents like DuBois now perform hundreds of rescues each year, while the bodies or skeletons of those who didn't make it keep turning up.
Reverend ROBIN HOOVER (Founder, Humane Borders): What they're doing, all of their strategies, are not working.
ROBBINS: Reverend Robin Hoover pulls out maps of the Arizona border. He's in the Tucson office of Humane Borders, the organization he founded. His map showed GPS points in the desert. Each point represents a body.
Rev. HOOVER: No matter how you measure it, the distance from the average death location to a road is growing.
ROBBINS: It's been a steady 200 bodies a year, despite the drop in illegal crossings. In other words, the rate of deaths is higher. It's become more dangerous to cross. David Hoffman heads the Border Patrol's Planning, Policy and Analysis Division. He doesn't dispute Hoover's numbers, but Hoffman blames the human smugglers for leading their customers into harms way.
Mr. DAVID HOFFMAN (Division Chief, Planning, Policy and Analysis Division, Office of Border Patrol): As we have taken away, denied areas where they traditionally worked in the past, they're going to some of these more remote areas.
ROBBINS: Hoffman says the Border Patrol will keep at the strategy of pushing people into remote areas as long as Congress and presidents since Bill Clinton ordered the agency to do so. Robin Hoover calls that Washington policy short-sighted.
Rev. HOOVER: We've already demonstrated in this corridor that if you double the number of agents and technology out here, it doesn't have an affect on the migrant deaths. You know, this is an immoral policy. It's a deadly policy. It lacks imagination, and it cannot be morally supported.
Mr. DUBOIS: All right, let's get this show on the road.
ROBBINS: Back in the desert, the agents escort the three captured crossers down from the mountains, along a dry wash to a waiting SUV. They'll be taken to Tucson, processed through the system, and then likely driven or flown back to Mexico, perhaps to try the potentially deadly crossing again.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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