- Associated Press - Sunday, September 5, 2010

NOGALES, Mexico | Hector Ortega stumbled across the body of a fellow migrant as he walked across Arizona’s harsh desert in the searing summer heat. He tried not to look too closely.

With nothing to be done for the deceased, Mr. Ortega and the others trudged on, guided by a smuggler across the U.S. border, determined to complete their illegal odyssey even as they endured record-high temperatures and fever-pitch resentment.

At 64, the farm laborer with a weathered face, strong hands and silver hair protruding from his baseball cap was stoic about the body — someone’s journey cut short near a stand of scrub bush and cactus.

“What can you do about it in the desert?” he asked.

Deaths of illegal immigrants in Arizona have soared this summer toward their highest levels since 2005 — a fact that has surprised many, who thought the furor over the state’s new immigration law and the 100-plus-degree heat would draw them elsewhere along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

But at the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz., the body bags are stacked on stainless-steel shelves from floor to ceiling. A refrigerated truck has been brought in to handle the overflow at the multimillion-dollar facility.

In July, 59 people died — 40 in the first two weeks when nighttime temperatures were the hottest in recorded history, hovering around the low 90s. The single-month death count is second only to that of July 2005, when 68 bodies were found.

Of this July’s deaths, 44 were on the Tohono O’odham Nation, a reservation that shares 75 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico. The tribe is opposed to humanitarian aid on its lands, believing it invites violence.

Eighteen more people died in the first 23 days of August.

Even with the prospect of a torturous death, and the bitter wrath they face in Arizona, immigrants, including Mr. Ortega, say the state’s vast, sparsely populated terrain is still the best place for border jumpers.

“In Tijuana, you have two walls that you have to get over,” said Mr. Ortega, who first crossed the border in 1976 to work in West Coast agricultural fields. “This is much easier here. You just have to watch out for the snakes. That’s why I prefer to walk in the daytime and not at night.”

He acknowledges that he’s afraid when he crosses, but states flatly, “It’s worth the risk.”

Even though — after two days of traversing the desert — he and his group were caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents when they reached a freeway and their ride wasn’t there.

Resting at a shelter for failed border crossers that sets atop a steep hill in Mexico overlooking Nogales, Mr. Ortega expanded on his motives. “It’s the only way to make a little money to support my family,” he said.

Mr. Ortega knows risks. He is from Apatzingan in Michoacan, where drug gangs have terrorized the impoverished farm town.

Story Continues →