The number of illegal immigrants who died while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border through the Arizona desert rose dramatically between 2000 and 2005 - largely because of a funnel effect that shifted traffic from urban areas in Texas and California, says a new study.
The study found an increase in the number of deaths of unauthorized border crossers - from nine in 1990 to 201 in 2005. "A Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: New Estimates of Deaths Among Unauthorized Immigrants" was done by the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona with help from the Pima County medical examiner's office.
Additionally, the number of bodies recovered by the Pima County medical examiner's office rose dramatically - 802 from 2000 to 2005, up from 125 from 1990 to 1999.
"What we wanted to show was that since the militarization of the border, people have begun turning to more dangerous crossing areas," said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, one of the study's author's and director of the Binational Migration Institute.
People would rather take the risk and cross where there's less chance they will get caught, Ms. Rubio-Goldsmith said.
The study is in line with a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that said deaths in Arizona accounted for at least 78 percent of the increased Southwestern border deaths between 1990 and 2003.
Experts including the GAO "now explain this crisis as a direct consequence of U.S. immigration control policies initially instituted in the mid-1990s," the report said, referring to "prevention-through-deterrence" measures that funneled illegal immigrants "into Arizona's remote, harsh geography."
For several years, Arizona has been the focal point for illegal immigration traffic. Starting in 1994, federal authorities began increasing Border Patrol resources, beginning with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, then expanding to Operation Gatekeeper at San Diego.
Additional agents, fencing and other infrastructure were added at other points in California and Texas to make illegal crossings more difficult in those areas.
Some 80 percent of the dead were younger than 40, with an increasing number younger than 18, the study said.
Previously, the study found, most of the dead were from the closest northern states of Mexico, but many more are now coming from central and southern Mexico.
"This is just one sector," Ms. Rubio-Goldsmith said of the Tucson statistics. "Can you imagine what they'd find if they did similar studies along other parts of the border? The numbers would be much higher."
Gustavo Soto, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, said the increase is alarming. He said smugglers often lie to the immigrants, telling them that the trek is one to two days at most, when it can be up to four or five days in the more desolate areas.
Mr. Soto said the desert area around Sasabe and Sonorita is about 160 square miles.
"These people come across with one gallon of water," he said. "They're naturally not prepared and die."
Mr. Soto said the border patrol is trying to put in more lookout towers and noted that in the last two years, the agency has rescued about 1,500 immigrants who could have met the same fate.