PHOENIX — The number of immigrants who died while sneaking across America's southern border in the last 12 months is expected to surpass the previous year's total, even as fewer people are getting caught entering the country illegally.
The U.S. Border Patrol says 378 people perished near the border during the 11-month period that ended Aug. 31. The death toll is likely to rise in the coming days as the government finishes its tally for the 2009 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Immigrant rights advocates say the numbers reflect deep flaws in America's border enforcement, because as the Border Patrol puts more agents and technology in certain spots, smugglers turn to more remote migration routes where enforcement is weaker, exposing their clients to more perilous conditions, such as triple-digit heat.
"There is a very large increase in the rate of deaths, despite the economic downturn, less immigration and the increase in the number of Border Patrol agents. This shows that our border strategy is having a truly horrifying cost in human lives," said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties in California.
Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling said the agency has sent its search-and-rescue crews out at least 444 times in the last year for immigrants in distress, installed rescue beacons where immigrants can signal for help, and run advertisements that warn of smugglers who put them in danger.
"We want to make sure that our efforts are focused on preventing the border crossings to begin with and target these human smugglers who take people out into these locations and put their lives at risk," Easterling said.
More than half the deaths in the fiscal year that just ended were reported in Arizona, which became the busiest illegal entry point after the federal government tightened enforcement in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego in the mid 1990s.
Texas ranked second in immigrant deaths, followed by California and New Mexico.
The leading cause of death was exposure to the heat. Other causes included drownings in rivers and drainage canals, homicides by bandits who target immigrants, and rollovers of smuggling vehicles.
A report released this week by the ACLU and Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights called the deaths a humanitarian crisis and urged the Border Patrol to put more resources into its search-and-rescue operations.