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Migrant deaths have doubled in the last decade

WASHINGTON—The number of illegal immigrants dying each year as they try to cross from Mexico into the United States has more than doubled in the past decade, according to a report issued Thursday.

More and more, the dead are women, the report said. And more migrants are dying from exposure in the desert than from other causes.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, also questioned how well the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is collecting data on the deaths. It said the agency needs to get a better handle on how well its agents are preventing these deaths.

In 1998, for example, 254 migrants died trying to cross the southwest border, the report said. That number jumped to 472 in 2005, even though there's been no correlated increase in the number of illegal immigrants overall.

A decade ago, 9 percent of those who died trying to cross were women, according to the report. Last year, women made up 21 percent of the deaths. Nearly all the increase stemmed from deaths in eastern Arizona, where migrants traverse desert and rural Native American reservations.

The report comes as some 6,000 National Guard troops are stationed along the southwestern border in an effort to deter migrants from crossing.

A decade ago, most migrant deaths were the result of traffic accidents, the report said. But in recent years, the major cause of death has been heat exposure, especially in the Arizona desert in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.

There, migrants often walk days with little water in temperatures that can top 115 degrees. The report said that more security efforts in urban areas such as San Diego, Calif., and El Paso, Texas, have sent migrants into more difficult terrain.

Gathering up data on the deaths and deciding which bodies belong to migrants can be difficult.

The report said the Border Patrol needs to do more to figure out who is dying and where. Only then, the report said, can the agency understand how effective it has been in its Border Safety Initiative, which was launched in 1994 to help prevent migrant deaths.

In rural Arizona, local agencies try to find identification on bodies found in the desert. Officials look for signs such as water bottles or backpacks, indications that victims were walking long distances. Skeletal remains may belong to migrants if they're found in known migrant corridors.

Some unknown number of bodies likely remains in the desert and may never be counted, the report said.

The report said local Border Patrol offices don't do enough to assess the numbers and causes of deaths. There's inconsistency in how well the offices communicate with local agencies.

Better data, the report said, could help the agency focus its efforts on helping migrants.

Border Patrol spokesman Xavier Rios said the agency concurred with the findings and is studying ways to better collect data.

Rios said the agency's safety initiative has had a "positive impact."

"It's hard to measure," he said. "I can say we have increased the number of rescues, but what does that mean?"

Still, the agency's first job is apprehension, Rios said. "We're a law enforcement agency. The primary responsibility is still border enforcement."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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