Air and water

John Hunter floats a balloon over the desert outside of Tubac in 2013 in a test to draw border crossers toward water.

The death count of undocumented border crossers in Pima County this year could be the third-highest since the Medical Examiner's Office started tracking them 21 years ago.

The remains of 177 crossers were recovered in Pima County from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30. That's a nearly 16 percent increase over the 153 recovered in 2019.

The first three quarters of 2020 marked a 22 percent increase over the nine-year average of 145 undocumented remains per year.

The county classifies foreign nationals who die crossing the border without permission as a UBC in the Office of the Medical Examiner's annual reports.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess brought the findings to his attention.

"I meet with him probably every two to three weeks for the purpose of determining what's occurring in the community and what we could do to help," Huckelberry said. "That was one of his concerns, that he was quite surprised at the number of deaths from border crossers so far this year."

Hess estimated recoveries for 2020 could top 200 by year's end. He said the increase is likely a secondary effect of record heat and lack of rain.

For the last 20 years, October, November and December averaged nine, eight and eight remains discovered, respectively. Using those figures, Pima County could see 202 remains discovered by Dec. 31.

In 2010, there were 222 remains recovered and 214 in 2007.

Huckelberry said this year's record-breaking heat and lack of rain are contributing factors, but other aspects need consideration as well.

"The other issue is that we have more Border Patrol agents on the border than ever," he said. "And if you go back and chart the number of Border Patrol agents 21 years ago, you're going to find an entirely different number."

Huckelberry said more agents mean more eyes to catch people in distress before they become fatalities.

The ME's office receives bodies in various states of decomposition and categorizes them to approximate periods for death called a postmortem interval.

In 2019, 64 of the 153 UBC remains had a PMI greater than six to eight months, with complete skeletonization and bone degradation. The ME's office received 15 bodies with a PMI less than one week and 11 others classified as less than one day.

Since 2000, the majority of recovered bodies had PMIs of less than one day – 952. There were 642 classified as dead longer than six to eight months.

Exposure was the most common known cause of death at 39 percent, or 1,139 people, from 2000 to 2019. According to the numbers, 49 percent or 1,497 people, remain undetermined.

"We're going to do a more in-depth analysis, in the next two to three months where we go back and look at a number of factors by year," Huckelberry said. "Which will include the mean temperature, rainfall, Border Patrol agents, obstructed miles of the border or constructed wall components of the border so we can try and make a little more sense of what's going on."

Jorge Encinas | 520-547-9732