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Wednesday October 4, 2000

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Illegal immigration up throughout southern Arizona

By The Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. - The number of illegal immigrants caught while trying to cross into Arizona shot up during the recently completed fiscal year, continuing a trend that has made the state the nation's hot spot for undocumented crossings.

Agents in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which covers all of southern Arizona except for Yuma, caught more than 615,000 people during the 2000 fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 1999, to Sept. 30. That's a 31 percent increase over the 1999 fiscal year.

The Yuma Sector, which covers Yuma County and parts of four other counties in Arizona and California, was also up. Final numbers there are expected to be released today.

Officials believe the increase is due largely to crackdowns in California and Texas that have driven more immigrants toward Arizona, where agents then tried to divert the crossers into rural areas. The strategy is intended to discourage illegal crossers by making their crossing attempts more difficult.

The Border Patrol efforts seem to have succeed in that they have pushed the crossing routes out of urban areas.

"As we counter activity in one area, the smugglers will typically respond. I don't want to compare it to a chess game - it's not a game but it is strategy," said Rob Daniels, a spokesman for the patrol's Tucson Sector.

The agency's efforts has also opened it up to increased criticism because the death toll for immigrants along the southern Arizona border has also gone up, with many crossers succumbing to triple-digit heat.

In the Tucson Sector, 74 immigrants died this year, up from 29 in 1999. Of those, 41 were attributed to heat exposure and three to cold, while the others were attributed to a wide variety of causes, including car accidents.

The policy is "deadly, possibly criminal," said Jesus Romo, a Tucson immigration activist.

"When you know something you do is causing death to people, especially young children and women who are completely helpless - and you don't change the policy - that's gross negligence," Romo said.

Edward J. Williams, a University of Arizona political science professor, said diverting people into the desert has little long-term effect.

"More people are just going to die in the process," he said. "It's not going to make a significant dent in the problem."

Sharon Gavin, a regional spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, pointed to the BORSTAR program, a search-and-rescue effort that aided 1,349 illegal crossers, as a humane aspect of the policy. "Our job is to protect the border, but also to save lives," she said.

Agent Al Casillas, a spokesman for the Yuma Sector, noted the agency there had concentrated on patrolling the desert during the summer months. "One of our main concerns has been safety," he said.