Over the last decade, the U.S. government has spent billions beefing up surveillance, manpower and fencing along the border with Mexico. Fewer people are attempting to cross, but hundreds of migrants still die every year, and not a day goes by without a rescue by border patrol agents.
Officials and humanitarian groups are ramping up efforts to find illegal crossers before the worst happens, and they're hoping new deterrents convince people not to cross in the first place.
Catching The Crossers
Robert Kiernan is one of the agents assigned to help track down those trying to cross. Kiernan is a Border Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) agent working in an area southwest of Tucson, Ariz.
On a recent evening, he scans the desert for signs that people have been here. It's nearly sunset, 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: I got two bodies walking northbound from the 34 road. They're maybe a mile north.
A border patrol truck loaded with radar and cameras spotted them. Kiernan turns around and drives to the location. After a short hike, he sees 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 and finds wire cutters, a steak knife, a pencil, toilet paper, snacks and water from a nearby cattle tank.
After a walk back to the road, other border patrol agents give the men fresh water, which they gulp down.
Kiernan says most crossers are unprepared for the journey.
"They're often lied to by the smugglers," Kiernan says. He says smugglers tell crossers that Phoenix — where these two say they were headed to find construction work — is just a day's walk. It actually takes a week.
"Most of them wouldn't sign up for something if they knew they were crossing into a region that could possibly take their life. Business wouldn't be that great for the smugglers, so they gotta lie to them to get them to take that hike," Kiernan says.
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. 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.
The Fate Of The Unlucky
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.
"We probably have about 250-ish people in there," Hess says, guessing that almost all of them are undocumented migrants.
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 ID 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 years. In another room, small lockers contain baggies filled with migrants' personal effects. Hess examines one collection.
"This is Case 1501. And you can see we have a Mexican identification with a name. We also have a piece of paper with phone numbers, CDs and a portion of a watch, which is still running," Hess says.
The ID shows a healthy-looking young man, but his remains are likely just a skeleton, so there are no fingerprints. Efforts to trace him through DNA haven't been successful. His remains will stay here until someone claims them or he's cremated.
Taking Steps To Reduce Deaths
Though there are fewer people crossing the border illegally and there's more security than ever, border deaths aren't dropping. Hess says southern Arizona is still on pace to reach 150-200 deaths this year – the average yearly total over the last decade.
No one knows for sure why deaths aren't dropping, but research from one humanitarian group suggests that people are being found in more remote places. That coincides with the buildup of enforcement in urban areas – where people used to cross.
To combat the problem, the Border Patrol says it's put 40 BORSTAR agents and 200 emergency medical technicians in the Tucson sector. It's also training two new classes of agents. Humanitarian groups continue to patrol areas, but they want more help, like rescue beacons, water stations and better access. That's going to take more cooperation from federal and state land managers as well as the Border Patrol and Native American tribes that own the land.
There's also a push to get phone companies to have more cellphone coverage for 9-1-1 calls in these remote areas. Warnings about the dangers of crossing are broadcast on TV and radio ads throughout Mexico and Central America.
New Penalties For Illegal Crossing
As for the two men Kiernan caught, they faced a new punishment. Less than five years ago, they likely would have been put on a bus and sent back to the Mexican border where they could simply try to cross again. That "catch and release" policy, as President Bush called it, has virtually been ended.
These men were taken to Tucson, processed as any other arrestee, and prosecuted. They were charged with illegal crossing under Operation Streamline, which has a near-100-percent conviction rate. The first conviction is a misdemeanor, usually punishable by time served. Offenders get a deportation on their record, and if they try to cross again, they can be charged with a felony.
Those efforts may be working, but they are long-term fixes. Generations of families have been crossing the southern border for years, and it could take as long as a generation to discourage them. Until then, people will continue to die.