Jose Cardenas: U.S. Border patrol figures shows a 47% decrease in apprehensions since 2009. However, migrant deaths in the desert continue at a steady pace and the Tucson sector has the highest numbers. Producer Luis Carrion from KUAT in Tucson has an update from the Pima county medical examiner’s office.
Luis Carrion: The international border between Mexico and the U.S. can be a contentious place and since policies were implemented in the 1990s, thousands of remains of men, women and children have been recovered on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gregory Hess: We've been a hotbed for this for about 10 years, especially with the death aspect of it.
Luis Carrion: He heads the Pima county office of the medical examiner. As the chief medical examiner in Pima County, it's his job to provide active and timely death investigations for the county.
Gregory Hess: This we did for DNA.
Gregory Hess: In the state of Arizona, the medical examiner system, there's no corners and the counties are responsible for death investigations in Arizona. Pima county includes Tucson and a big chunk of the border and we do quite a bit of work for other counties that are smaller and don't have their own medical examiner office.
Luis Carrion: According to the doctor, having such a big chunk of the U.S.-Mexico border falls under the jurisdiction of his office means that migrant deaths account for much of his death.
Gregory Hess: The freshest numbers are the ones I compiled at the end of 2011. So at the end of 2011, we had recorded 1,911 migrant deaths since 2001. And we actually had identified almost 1,200 of those. So we do end up identifying more people than we don't but still, this is just so many. Nobody else has this problem.
Luis Carrion: Migrant deaths peeked in 2010 when 230 bodies were recovered in the desert. Border patrol has reported a significant drop in apprehensions this year but the number of bodies recovered by the medical examiner's office are on track to match the 184-body yearly average.
Gregory Hess: Do they have any tattoos, any surgeries, any dental work that's distinctive? These are the things we can try to match to try to identify them. If we can't, we can try to resort to DNA.
Luis Carrion: According to the doctor, his office has worked to expedite the process of identification and delivery of remains to the appropriate parties.
Gregory Hess: We've tried to be more aggressive about releasing remains when we're done with them and trying to find incentives for people responsible for burial of unidentified or indigent remains to come and get them quicker.
Luis Carrion: According to him, the sheer number of bodies that come through this facility has created storage problems for his office, a situation that is unique to the border dynamic of Pima county.
Gregory Hess: 2005 was the first year that we ran out of space in our cooler. So our indoor cooler holds about 120 people, which is actually quite a bit. So we exceeded that in 2005. We had to bring in a refrigerated truck, built this outdoor cooler that holds 142, which we exceeded a couple of times in subsequent years.
Luis Carrion: No other medical examiner has the problem of dealing with so many migrant deaths. These are unidentified bodies that are recovered from the desert far from the families and friends that can help identify who they are.
Gregory Hess: So essentially, this is a male but we don't know who it is. We found these remains in 2012.
Luis Carrion: The current migration dynamic has increased his workload and he says the problem is complex and any foreseeable solution remains elusive.
Gregory Hess: Clearly, if there wasn't an economic incentive for people to cross, they wouldn't do so. That sounds basic. How do you fix that is a big question. Other people would prefer to build sort of a Great Wall of China type situation and physically prevent people from getting across the desert and perhaps that would be effective, although likely people would find other ways if that were there in some fashion.
Luis Carrion: He says human migration both legal and illegal has taken place before around the world and for the team being, Pima county is at the epicenter of a major historical event but he says at some point things will have to change.
Gregory Hess: And for us anyway, we're just going to keep working as we have been until we suddenly stop finding bodies.