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`Funnel Effect' Cited for 20-Fold Increase in Migrant Deaths

By Arthur H. Rotstein/
Associated Press
      TUCSON — A ''funnel effect'' that moved illegal immigrant traffic from urban areas in California and Texas into Arizona's forbidding deserts dramatically increased the number of deaths, a study released Wednesday concludes.
    In studying all deaths of illegal immigrants examined between 1990 and 2005 by the Pima County (Tucson) medical examiner's office, the Binational Migration Institute said there was a 20-fold increase in deaths over that period, ''creating a major public health and humanitarian crisis in the deserts of Arizona.''
    The medical examiner's office examined and processed 927 recovered bodies between 1990 and 2005, according to the institute, which is part of the University of Arizona's Mexican American Studies and Research Center.
    Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office 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, starting with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas, then expanding to Operation Gatekeeper at San Diego.
    Fencing, additional agents and other infrastructure was added at other points in California and Texas, designed to make illegal crossings more difficult in those areas and to discourage immigrant traffic by pushing or funneling crossings into Arizona's more desert and mountain areas.
    The report cites a 2000 newspaper interview in which former Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Doris Meissner said: ''We did believe that geography would be an ally to us ... It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it's like.''
    In 1990, the Pima County medical examiner's office investigated nine known so-called ''unauthorized border-crosser'' deaths, and the annual average number between 1990 and 1999 was about 14 recovered bodies, the report said.
    But the average between 2000 and 2005 reached 160 bodies sent to the medical examiner's office.
    Though the funneling effort began in 1994, ''it really didn't start taking effect in the Arizona desert until 1999,'' said Melissa McCormick, the institute's senior research specialist.
    ''In 2005, after the 'funnel effect' was in full swing, the Pima County medical examiner's office examined and attempted to identify 201 known UBC deaths,'' the report said.
    More than a quarter of those who died could not be identified by the medical examiner's office and other U.S. and Mexican agencies, according to the report.
    Critics of the federal strategy have contended for years that the policy has resulted in increased deaths.
    McCormick said researchers went back through autopsy reports to determine the final totals. ''We came up with a lot more unauthorized border-crosser bodies than anybody knew about in Pima County,'' she said.
    Medical Examiner Bruce Parks, she said, ''set up a database in 2001 to try to start counting UBCs, but prior to 2001 there wasn't a specific category in the office to identify a decedent as a UBC.''
    McCormick said previous national studies have used national vital statistics — death certificates — in many instances to try to identify such deaths in border areas. They erroneously assumed in cases of unidentified deaths that by default the dead persons were U.S. citizens, ''which would of course inevitably lead to an undercount of UBCs,'' she said.
    As deaths rose in the Tucson sector, the numbers went down in all eight other Border Patrol sectors along the southwest border, McCormick said.
    From a national viewpoint, the report is an important follow-up to the GAO's of last year, which also said that the Border Patrol's methodology for counting illegal immigrant deaths was flawed, McCormick said.
    She said institute officials suggest that standardized criteria and protocol be created and instituted all along the border for counting, processing and handling recovered bodies, using autopsy reports.
    The Border Patrol's limiting criteria reflects such problems, McCormick added.
    Calls to Border Patrol spokesmen in Tucson and Washington for comment on the report were not immediately returned Wednesday.

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