An increase in the number of dead bodies found on the U.S. side of the southwestern border in Arizona has prompted local border officials in that sector to arrest and prosecute first-time illegal trespassers, a move normally reserved for repeat offenders, in an effort to save lives.
Border Patrol agents at the Tucson Sector Headquarters hope the threat of criminal charges will deter illegal immigrants from making the dangerous trip through Mexico's hottest desert on their trek to the states.
"Under this program, once through the courts, they [first-time illegal entrants] have a lower recidivism rate," Tucson Border Patrol agent and public information officer Daniel Hernandez told the Washington Examiner. "In our area, we find that many times repercussions of this nature would prevent people from entering the country."
The 100,000-square mile Sonoran Desert stretches from Baja, Mexico, to southern California and Arizona. Last month, the Sonoran saw high temperatures up to 120 degrees, making the trek for illegal migrants even more treacherous and just as difficult for border agents trying to secure the large area.
From Jan. 1 through June 30, 81 bodies or skeletal remains were found in the region, putting the sector on target to surpass last year's total of 154 deceased bodies, according to data from the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.
That increase prompted officials to restart an old program last month that mandates the prosecution of any person caught illegally in the U.S., something they hadn't done in years.
The efforts appear to be yielding major results, judging by the large number of first-time arrests in June despite decreasing apprehension numbers since the beginning of the year.
Customs and Border Protection announced Thursday the single border sector prosecuted 565 people who were arrested for making a first attempt to illegally cross into the U.S., which is a misdemeanor. Prosecution for felony crimes is typically only carried out against repeat offenders.
While short-term, overnight results are not expected, Hernandez said the long-term, seasonal effects are documented.
The project is specific to the Tucson sector, though it has also been used in the Yuma, New Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, sectors.