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Crossing Arizona deserts nearly as dangerous in winter as summer

By Arthur H. Rotstein
Tucson, Arizona (AP) 12-07

Arizona’s southern deserts are notorious for causing the deaths of illegal immigrants who try crossing miles of remote land in sizzling summer heat. Officials know that after a particularly hot spell, they’ll find the bodies of those killed by dehydration or heat stroke.

But the height of winter can be nearly as bad for migrants trying to make it into the U.S. from Mexico, at least in the misery the elements force them to endure during the trek. Temperatures can drop below freezing, snow and rainfall can soak migrants and shelter can be days away.

Most illegal immigrants apprehended this time of year are not appropriately dressed or prepared for the colder weather, said Dove Haber, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which covers all the Arizona-Mexico border except for an area around Yuma.

“I could say the same for the cold as for the heat: If you’ve been misled about the duration of your trip, if you’re told that you’re only going to be outside for three hours instead of three days, you’re not going to be dressed warmly enough,” Haber said. “They’ll have basic jackets, but nothing compared with what they’d need, especially if they’re crossing in mountainous areas.”

In the past four years, the Border Patrol has recorded 27 deaths directly attributable to cold in the Tucson sector.

In the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 400 people perished while entering the United States from Mexico in the sector. The primary cause of death for the immigrants was exposure to heat. Other causes include vehicle and train accidents, drownings, fatigue and banditry – and exposure to cold.

Volunteer groups who work all summer to warn migrants about crossing in the heat switch gears in the winter, going on late-night drives into the remote desert hoping anyone who needs help flags them down.

The Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of the group Humane Borders, said he’s gone out searching with volunteers after dramatic weather changes such as heavy rains followed by sudden freezing.

One of the group’s main missions is to set out water stations along desert trails heavily used by illegal immigrants.

“We have never encountered anybody in just searching for people. They hunker down and do what they have to do,” Hoover said. “We have never been successful in finding people.”

But he said during peak migration times in February and March, sometimes migrants who’ve gone through a 28-degree night will walk out to a road, flag down a volunteer and say “get me out of here. Call migra.”

Haber added that Mexican authorities hand out information south of the border telling potential crossers that it’s a good idea to light signal fires if they find themselves in trouble.

Haber said not everybody who is caught this time of year is close to experiencing hypothermia, “but there are a large number of people who definitely show signs of advanced exposure.”

Severe cold snaps have impacted hundreds of immigrants crossing the Tohono O’odham Reservation twice since 2000. A winter storm that March forced 350 shivering people to knock on doors or flag down tribal police and seek shelter. Similar frigid cold and rain during an overnight storm in April 2001 forced more than 400 migrants to turn themselves in to tribal police or Border Patrol agents, and five people were taken to Tucson for treatment of hypothermia.

So far this season the weather hasn’t turned cold enough to deter many illegal border-crossers from entering Arizona, nor have there been any cold-related deaths or rescues, the Border Patrol says.

But with temperatures dropping, each agent who goes out on patrol takes seasonal precautions. Every agent has an emergency bag in his or her patrol vehicle, with blankets, signal flares, shovels, emergency rations, first-aid kits, water and packets of electrolytes that can be mixed with water.

“They have gear to deal with heat and with cold,” Haber said.

In addition, the agency’s specially trained search, rescue and trauma agents are ready to apply hot packs for hypothermia victims to warm them up while they’re being transported for medical assistance.

“Because we see such temperature extremes in this area, our agents are pretty accustomed to dealing with all such extremes (of heat or cold),” Haber said.