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Deaths At The Arizona-Mexico Border Are On Pace To Be Highest Ever Recorded

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The medical examiner who's responsible for a wide swath of Arizona's border with Mexico says the number of migrants who've died there trying to cross illegally is on a pace to be the highest ever recorded. Temperatures have been blazing hot the last month, and immigrant advocates say that a policy adopted when the pandemic began is contributing to the number of border deaths and distress calls. Arizona Public Media's Alisa Reznick reports.

ALISA REZNICK, BYLINE: I'm standing in a vast and empty stretch of desert grassland in Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border with Joel Smith. He's a Marine veteran with shoulder-length, gray hair and works for an aid organization called Humane Borders. He's here to check on a barrel of water for migrants crossing the desert.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING)

REZNICK: He hopes this water will save someone's life, though nearby is a squat, wooden cross that marks where a young migrant died.

JOEL SMITH: This is a lonely place to die.

REZNICK: Smith keeps his eyes peeled for others who haven't made it.

SMITH: We think there's a lot of dead migrants out there that nobody will ever find. And eventually, their bones will be scattered by the wild animals, and they'll decompose out there.

REZNICK: The remains that are found along this approximately 260-mile-long stretch of border go to Pima County Medical Examiner Greg Hess.

(SOUNBITE OF GEARS CRANKING)

GREG HESS: What we have in this plastic sleeve is a wallet.

REZNICK: We're in a windowless back room in his office with orange lockers. They're filled with the belongings of migrants who died.

HESS: We've pulled out a couple identification cards for - they're Mexican identification cards. We've got some pieces of paper with phone numbers.

REZNICK: There's one locker for 2019, one for 2020, and for 2021, Hess has already expanded to two. He's received 140 people's remains found near the border so far this year. He says the number is on pace to break last year's record. Last month alone, during the brutal heat wave, he received 43 bodies and skeletal remains. They may not all have died in June, but he says most were found days after they succumbed.

HESS: The majority of the remains that we recover we're either calling the cause of death environmental-related, like hypothermia and dehydration, or a combination of those things.

REZNICK: Hypothermia is when the body temperature spikes due to extreme heat. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, statistics show rescue missions at the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year are up dramatically compared with last year. Border Patrol agent Jesus Vasavilbaso says one reason is that smugglers have changed their tactics, like guiding migrants via cell phone rather than traveling with them and sending them on more remote and treacherous routes. During last month's heat wave, Vasavilbaso says the Tucson sector was getting up to 40 911 calls a day.

JESUS VASAVILBASO: We have seen an increase in encounters overall.

REZNICK: CBP data shows encounters, or apprehensions, are the highest they've been in 15 years. Analysts say that's because of natural disasters in Central America, economic devastation from the pandemic and a perceived change of policy at the border.

VASAVILBASO: So the more people that come, obviously, the more people that they're going to be asking to be rescued.

REZNICK: Vasavilbaso says another reason for the spike is the fact that they're catching the same people multiple times. That trend has been on the rise since the pandemic began. That's when the Trump administration invoked a little-known public health code called Title 42. It basically erases the threat of criminal penalties for crossing illegally. Most migrants who get caught are sent back across the border to Mexico almost immediately. The Biden administration has kept it in place, even though it's come under fire because it makes it harder to seek asylum.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel with the American Immigration Council that advocates for immigrants, says Title 42 also encourages repeat crossings at migrants' peril.

AARON REICHLIN-MELNICK: They try again, you know, 48 hours later. Each time they are rolling the dice, and for some, because it has forced them to go into the more dangerous locations, the journey ends in death.

REZNICK: CBP data shows that more than 30% of people apprehended border-wide last month were on at least their second crossing in a year. That's more than double the average rate for many years pre-pandemic. Norberto, who'd only give his first name, has tried five times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's sending them in - one, two, three, four, five, six...

REZNICK: He and about 40 others got off a Department of Homeland Security bus at the border. They were being sent back to Agua Prieta, just south of Douglas, Ariz. Agents caught Norberto in the desert.

NORBERTO: (Non-English language spoken).

REZNICK: He looked for a pair of shoes in donations volunteers laid out. He was still limping after a hard landing jumping the border wall. But he wanted the new shoes to cross yet again - his sixth try.

NORBERTO: (Non-English language spoken).

REZNICK: He's scared, but he says he has God, who protects us all. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Reznick in Tucson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.