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Illegal immigrant death wave following desert’s heat wave

Citizen Staff Writer



One was just 15. Another was a pregnant 24-year-old who died while her husband searched for help. A third was an unidentified, middle-age man who had sought shelter from the sun in an abandoned house. His body had been decomposing for at least two weeks.

All were found over the past few days during record-breaking heat that has led to a wave of death across Arizona’s desert, with 12 suspected illegal immigrants reported dead since Friday night.

Dozens of other migrants were saved by nearly 50 rescue operations, the U.S. Border Patrol said. Volunteer doctors and nurses with the humanitarian aid group Samaritans also reported finding migrants in advanced stages of heat exposure, vomiting and in some cases drinking their own urine.

Many migrants come from tropical areas and are unfamiliar with extreme heat and aridity. Often smugglers lie about the difficulty of the trip.

The deaths were scattered along Arizona’s 350-mile border with Mexico, from Yuma to Cochise County, with the majority found around the Tohono O’odham Nation. Preliminary reports indicate all died of heat exposure.

Last weekend marked the start of the so-called “season of death,” when temperatures spike over 100 degrees and migrants begin to die in quick succession. The deaths have increased in Arizona every year since the United States successfully cracked down on illegal immigration elsewhere along the border. Last year, 221 people died in Arizona trying to cross the border, according to county medical examiners.

Heat waves, with day after day of unrelenting high temperatures, are particularly dangerous. Four years ago yesterday, 14 migrants from a single group succumbed to record-breaking 111-degree temperatures. Their bodies were found scattered around the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range.

In July 2003, temperatures spiked in Cochise County, which is normally cooler than Arizona’s western desert. A string of 105-plus-degree days led to 10 deaths in under a week, overwhelming the normally quiet Cochise County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The death count last weekend began when a group of apprehended migrants led Border Patrol agents to the body of man in a wash north of Nogales. It continued Saturday with the death of 18-year-old Viridiana Herrera-Aguilar near Yuma. Herrera-Aguilar had crossed the border with her husband and quickly fell ill.

A second woman, 24-year-old Marcela Cruz Gonzalez, also entered with her husband. Cruz was pregnant and died after walking for four hours in 108-degree heat.

Four of the 12 people reported dead last weekend were women. Three died in Yuma, six in the western desert, one near Nogales and two in Cochise County.

The last bodies were found yesterday morning on the O’odham Nation. One was a man who had been traveling with his brother. The brother survived and led Border Patrol agents to the body at 4:30 a.m. Another was spotted sprawled in the desert by a Border Patrol helicopter looking for stragglers from a larger group that had been rescued Sunday. The last body was found by a rancher in an abandoned house in Casa Grande. The Border Patrol said the man had been dead for two to three weeks.

The Border Patrol is focusing much of its resources on the area around the O’odham Nation, recently assigning 200 more agents to a region that is one of the busiest and deadliest in the state. Tucson sector chief Michael Nicley believes that more resources will eventually deter migrants from entering the area.

“That’s ludicrous to believe that it’s going to make a significant difference,” the Rev. Robin Hoover said. “It’s the policies that are failed, and the policy-makers have been asking Border Patrol to do an impossible job.”

Hoover heads Humane Borders, which has been putting water containers in the desert for the past five years in an attempt to save lives. Hoover returned from out of town Sunday and was devastated to learn of so many deaths.

“This really hurts,” he said. “Nobody is equipped down here to provide migrant safety. We bear the expense of that, human and financial.”

The only solution is comprehensive immigration reform, Hoover said. He’s a strong supporter of bipartisan legislation recently introduced by U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

“For the first time, we have reason to be hopeful,” he said. But, he added, “even if it were magically passed tomorrow, we’d still be in the water business for a couple of years. It’s going to take a while to get people out of the desert.”

For more border coverage, go to www.tucsoncitizen.com/border.

Recent heat-related death clusters


May 20-23, 2005

12 migrants die during a three-day, record-breaking heat wave.

• Peak temperature: 109

• Normal high temperature: 92


July 11-17, 2003

10 migrant deaths in just under a week overwhelm the Cochise Countys Medical Examiner’s Office during a record-breaking heat wave.

• Peak temperature: 107

• Normal high temperature: 93


May 23, 2001

14 bodies from a single group are found scattered over Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range.

• Peak temperature: 111

• Normal high temperature: 96

Information from National Weather Service and Citizen archives

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