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Illegal Immigrants Face 'Dangerous' Desert Trying to Enter Southwestern US

The desolate region of the desert that separates Mexico from the southwestern state of Arizona, where temperatures at this time of year soar above 40 degrees Centigrade, has claimed the lives of more than 200 people trying to cross into the United States illegally from Mexico so far this year. Both the U.S. government and private citizens are trying to do something to prevent the deaths in the desert.

Border Patrol agent Vincent Hampel is on a mission to stop illegal immigration into the United States, but he is also a trained medical technician who has saved the lives of countless immigrants.

"We go into the desert and look for these people," he said. "The first problem is finding them, the second problem we encounter is getting them out from this location to a place where they can receive advanced medical care."

Many private citizens in the border region are also trying to prevent immigrant deaths. Reverend Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, heads a volunteer organization called "Humane Borders," which places kegs of water at strategic points in the desert. He says the Border Patrol is more the problem than the solution to the immigrant death toll.

"Since 1993, we have not been able to reduce the number of people coming across here on an average annual basis by one person," he said. "Plus, the consequence of our policy has been such that we redirect where people cross. They cross in more dangerous areas and, as you bring in more law enforcement personnel, then the migrants take more circuitous routes and are exposed to the elements for a longer period of time and that leads to death."

Border Patrol spokesmen and citizens advocating immigration restrictions say deaths in the desert should not be blamed on efforts to enforce the law. They also criticize groups like Humane Borders for encouraging immigrants to cross the border illegally, a notion Revered Hoover rejects.

"If people would say, 'Well, you are creating an infrastructure for the migration.' If that were the criterion then for removing the water stations I would say you would have to remove Interstate 19 and you would have to remove lights from cities? That argument makes no sense," he said.

Heavy rains are now coming to Arizona, reducing the risk of dehydration, but increasing other risks for migrants. Border Patrol Agent Hampel says this area remains harsh, even when it is wet.

"Well, certainly, there is now [danger of] hypothermia, in the event that it gets too cold and we have to deal with it, and also if the monsoons hit pretty hard here, we have the potential for flooding and possibly people getting washed away in the washes [ravines] that are normally dry and then just suddenly fill up with water," he said.

The mud can also be a problem. On a highway running through the desert, agents come across two bedraggled men from Mexico.

They say they gave up after days of trekking through the barren land weighed down by the mud that clung to their shoes. They say there are others still out there and the Border Patrol must now look for them as well. These immigrants may have adequate water and may not be in distress yet, but Agent Hampel says they are no doubt exhausted.

"Some of the stuff out here is clay and it will stick to your foot and you cannot get it off," he said. "If they walk four or five days with their feet soaking wet that is going to give them what is referred to as trench foot, where their feet, the upper layer of skin will slop [fall] off and it is very painful."

The Border Patrol is stretched thin across this arid region, using helicopters, off-road vehicles, horse patrols and search dogs in an effort to both prevent illegal entry into the United States and to save the lives of those who come across in defiance of the law and in spite of the danger.