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Heat Deaths on Arizona-Mexico Border

June 6, 2000

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ Four days into what she was told would be a six-hour trip, Yolanda Gonzalez lay dead of dehydration in the Arizona desert _ a victim of a searing sun, 110-degree heat and her determination to save her daughter.

The 19-year-old mother from Oaxaca, Mexico, had given nearly all the water she carried to her 18-month-old daughter. Only a few ounces remained in the toddler’s bottle when Border Patrol searchers reached them on Memorial Day.

The youngster was rescued. Gonzalez became the sixth illegal immigrant to die of heat-related exposure in the past week in the Arizona desert. In all, 19 have died since October.

With summer still nearly three weeks away, ``we’re expecting that it is going to get worse,″ said Doreen Manuel, a tribal detective on the reservation where Gonzalez was found.

Heat-related deaths are an annual occurrence on this parched section of border, which draws those immigrants who don’t believe they can get into the United States anywhere else. But they’re more of a concern this year, with immigrants pouring into the state by the thousands each month.

In March, the Border Patrol arrested 76,245 illegal immigrants in the Tucson sector, which covers all but 50 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. That puts the sector on pace to break an annual record of detaining more than 470,000 illegal immigrants.

Federal authorities have increased patrols in California and Texas, forcing more border crossers to enter through Arizona. And stricter enforcement of the border near Arizona’s urban areas is in turn pushing immigrants to try remote areas where they can find little water and must often endure triple-digit heat. Most are ill-prepared to survive.

During all the 1999 fiscal year, there were 10 heat exposure deaths in the Tucson sector’s western deserts, but none before mid-June, said Border Patrol spokesman Charles Klingberg.

In the Yuma sector, which covers the rest of Arizona’s border, 11 people have died of heat exposure during fiscal year 2000. There were only four confirmed heat-exposure deaths in the area all of last year.

Alfredo Casillas, a Border Patrol spokesman in Yuma, said another factor behind the increase is that more patrols are venturing into the desert, where they are more likely to encounter stranded immigrants and find bodies.

Gonzalez was traveling with a small group that was told by smugglers ``they were only going to be walking for six hours in the desert,″ Manuel said. ``But the six hours lasted four days.″

Gonzalez carried 2 gallons of water, but drank little herself to allow more for her child, who is now in the care of Mexican authorities and will be reunited with family.

Like many others, she was found because a member of her group sought help from tribal police. Police in turn called the Border Patrol, which began searching for the group.

``The Border Patrol thought they would be rescuing a very sick lady,″ Manuel said.

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