- 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.

Roberto Hernandez de Rosas, 18, said his family paid a smuggler $1,500 to take him and his brother across the Arizona desert and on to Los Angeles.

His brother has made the trip three times, and the smuggler told them Arizona was still the easiest place to cross.

He was told it would cost twice as much to cross from Tijuana, where smugglers sell immigrants fake documents to walk through the port of entry.

“The town where I’m from, it’s like being in jail, it’s like a death,” said Mr. Hernandez, who is from a mountain village in the impoverished southern state of Puebla. “You have to think twice about crossing the desert, but when you don’t have any money, you need to look for a better life.”

Mr. Hernandez and his brother were spotted by a Border Patrol helicopter in the morning after walking through the desert during the night. Authorities returned Mr. Hernandez to Mexico, but his brother was jailed because he had prior deportations.

Mr. Hernandez had been at the shelter for a few days waiting for his brother to be released from custody because he had all his documents. After that, Mr. Hernandez said, he wanted to go back home rather than attempt another crossing.

But he expected his brother to try again because his 2-year-old son is in Los Angeles.

Most of those who trickled into the shelter planned to try again, shrugging off Arizona’s new law giving local authorities the power to arrest them — currently stayed by a federal court order. They are also unfazed by the Mexican government’s warning to its citizens to avoid the state.

Sofia Gomez, of an aid group called Humane Borders, said crossers are traveling through even more remote areas than in previous years. At the same time, anger over illegal immigration has led to people shooting up the water stations her group has placed in the desert.

“They’re taking a higher risk and they’re not making it,” she said.

So far this year, the body count is at 171, the same number the Pima County medical examiner’s office had seen at this time in 2007. That was the year the office reported a record 217 deaths.

Most of the deceased were young, healthy men — at least at the outset of their trips. By the time they reach the morgue, many are in advanced stages of decomposition and beyond recognition. Bag after bag is tagged with “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” as officials wait for families to come forward to report loved ones missing.

But the relatives of the deceased often are waiting back home to hear from them, thinking they are busy working in the U.S.

“We thought the political climate in Arizona would be a significant deterrent to people crossing but as far as the deaths are concerned, they certainly have been what looks like is going to be the highest they’ve ever been,” said the morgue’s Dr. Eric Peters.

That doesn’t surprise Border Patrol agent Colleen Agle, who works in the agency’s Tucson sector.

“Smugglers are the ones who determine where to take people, where they’re going to be walking, and they’re the ones deciding that certain areas are preferable,” Ms. Agle said. “They know they’re remote and they know we have difficulty accessing them, so they’re taking people through those areas. Unfortunately, they’re just putting people’s lives at risk.”

Worried about their profits, smugglers will leave behind people who are injured or fall ill, she said.

The Border Patrol often comes to the rescue.

Agency statistics show that agents helped 1,281 people in the past fiscal year. That was up from 1,264 rescues the previous fiscal year, but down from the all-time high of 2,845 rescues in fiscal 2006.

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