South Texas overtaking Arizona in border deaths

FALFURRIAS, Texas - The new scrutiny of South Texas by a civil-rights group focused on identifying the bodies of illegal border crossers underscores a geographical shift: Texas is overtaking Arizona in migrant deaths.

An accurate count is hard to gather because state, federal and local agencies keep separate records, with some remains being counted twice. Other bodies are never found.

But a comparison of the Brooks County, Texas, figures with recent numbers from Arizona -- where the information gathering is more centralized -- suggests the Texas death toll has either surpassed Arizona's or is close. And the increasing deaths come as overall immigration to the United States has dropped dramatically.

U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions, which analysts rely on to measure illegal immigration, are at 40-year lows, though there was a slight uptick in fiscal year 2012. They dropped from more than 1 million in 2006 to more than 364,000 in 2012.

This happened even as Border Patrol increased staffing from more than 12,000 to more than 21,000 for the same period.

The group Coalicion de Derechos Humanos recorded 253 migrant deaths in Arizona in the 2010 fiscal year; the toll dropped to 179 in 2012. Researchers consider the group's numbers fairly reliable because the bulk of the data comes from Pima County, where the medical examiner's office processes the majority of border crossers' remains found in the state.

In Brooks County, the death toll of 129 was up from 52 in 2011. Add to that the roughly 30 other deaths recorded by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, and the Texas numbers already are approaching Arizona's. Another 19 deaths were recorded by Border Patrol in its 2012 fiscal year in other Texas sectors, and that does not include bodies encountered by state and local authorities.

"You're probably going to have more" deaths in Texas for 2012, said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, researcher and adjunct lecturer at the University of Arizona's Binational Migration Institute.

In Brooks County, there are no signs of the deaths abating. Since Jan. 1, 10 sets of remains have been discovered, compared with four for the same period in 2012.

The shift is so stark that humanitarian groups that once trained their efforts primarily on the Arizona-Sonora region now are alarmed at what is happening in South Texas.

The South Texas Human Rights Project is beginning to pressure Texas localities that don't take DNA samples of unidentified human remains as it looks to tackle a problem once pervasive in Arizona. Counties there had no centralized way of documenting deaths, making it harder to identify remains. Now all but a handful are processed through Pima County.

Local authorities in South Texas operate like those in the Arizona-Sonora region a decade ago, human rights advocates say. Counties such as Brooks County, overwhelmed, understaffed, lacking medical examiners and funding, haven't been taking DNA from each body, making it harder for families of the missing to identify them later through DNA matches, the groups say. They held a news conference on the county courthouse steps this week and a prayer vigil at the county cemetery, which has run out of space.

And humanitarian groups haven't responded in Texas as they have in Arizona.

University of Arizona anthropologist Robin Reineke, who came here to research the growing migrant deaths, was surprised by the lack of groups that set out water, erect warning signs to deter crossings, connect with families searching for the missing.

It's "strangely silent," she said.

Observers point to multiple reasons for the shift of migrant deaths to South Texas.

In the 1990s, U.S. enforcement strategies hardened the border in El Paso and San Diego, Calif., pushing migrants into the Sonoran desert, said Douglas Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University.

In 2004 and 2010, new initiatives tightened enforcement in Arizona and pushed traffic into the lower Rio Grande Valley, Massey said.

Meanwhile, other forces were reshaping migration flows. The Mexican economy improved while the United States sank into recession. The average Mexican family got smaller with increased birth control, said Eleanor Sohnen, analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

An April report from the Pew Research Center showed these forces contributed to a net standstill in migration -- or even a slightly negative migration, with more people moving south than north.

But the same forces that slowed Mexican migration did not extend to Central America -- particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where stagnant growth and continued gang violence and drug trafficking spur people to leave. Guatemalans continue to have high fertility rates, Sohnen said.

A majority of the people dying in Brooks County came from those countries, according to sheriff's reports, local law enforcement and Border Patrol officials.

Texas may be more geographically convenient for an illegal border crossing when traveling from Central America. But, analysts say, migrants are also heeding Arizona's reputation for treacherous terrain and strict enforcement.

For human rights groups bringing new scrutiny to Texas, there seems little hope that the growing number deaths will enter into policy discussions in Washington.

"We've been using that vocabulary: 'humanitarian crisis,'" said Mike Wilson, policy director for the Border Action Network. "It doesn't move people. Migrant deaths are a regional, provincial story. It just gets no traction."

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