As the hottest time of year descends on the borderland, a new report sheds fresh light on the mass deaths of migrants crossing the deadly Sonora-Arizona desert. Co-authored by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, the study examines the deaths of 2,238 migrants in the Tucson area between 1990 and 2012.
The researchers document the dramatic rise in border crossing deaths beginning in 1990, when the bodies of 8 undocumented migrants were recovered, and culminating in 2012, when 171 migrant deaths were recorded. With 225 migrant deaths registered in the zone examined, 2010 was rated the deadliest year.
According to the report: “Previous research has illustrated that segmented border militarization has resulted in the funnel effect, or the redistribution of migratory flows into remote and dangerous areas such as southern Arizona…”
The sharp jump in migrant deaths was compared with immigration detentions, finding that there were 14.9 migrant deaths per 100,000 detentions in 1990 in contrast to 146.8 migrant deaths per 100,000 detentions in 2011. As deaths of border crossers climbed, the medical examiner’s office was forced to expand its facilities.
Of the 2,238 deceased individuals cited in the study, 768 remain unidentified. In terms of gender identity, 80 percent of the remains recovered belonged to males, 18 percent to females and the sex of 2 percent could be not be determined.
As far as national origin went, 82.2 percent of the identified persons were from Mexico, 7.1 percent from Guatemala, 2.3 percent from El Salvador, and 1.4 percent from Honduras. Individuals from Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Nicaragua were also identified.
The average age of the deceased migrants was 31.
Working under challenging circumstances because of the physical condition of the human remains recuperated, researchers were able to determine that 46 percent of the deceased persons died from climatic exposure, which in the region considered typically ranges from blazing hot weather in the warmer seasons to cold temperatures in the cooler ones, while 9 percent were killed in automobile accidents.
Notably, homicide accounted for 4 percent of the deaths. In more than one third of the cases, or 36 percent, the cause of death could not be determined.
The report notes that migrant deaths in the Arizona desert stayed at very high levels even as overall immigration flows and migrant detentions plummeted in recent years.
“Even though there are less undocumented people crossing the border, I think the most important thing we can point out is that the number of deaths has not come down,” said Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, University of Arizona researcher and co-author of the report. “This means that we continue proving that the more immigration law is enforced in a militarized way, the more deaths there are on the border.”
The report’s authors note that deaths of unauthorized border crossers have also increased in the U.S. Border Patrol Sectors of Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, jumping from a combined total of 131 in Fiscal Year 2011 to 240 in Fiscal Year 2012.
Further, the report holds the true number of migrant border crosser deaths is unknown, since not all bodies are discovered and many people remain missing. In this vein, the Pima County medical examiner Migrant Missing Project’s probe of 1,300 disappeared people will be the subject of a forthcoming report.
“Our hope is that policy makers will consider the data presented in this report as they debate what is arguably the single most important piece of immigration legislation in nearly three decades,” the report’s authors conclude. “Access to concrete data is crucial when making decisions of this caliber.”
The joint study by the Binational Migration Institute and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner contains detailed maps and graphics, including a stark photo of body bags stacked up for processing. Readers interested in seeing the new report can go to:
A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012
Additional Source: El Universal/EFE, June 5, 2013.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico