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Saturday, November 06, 2004

USA: activists call for better migrant death counts


Flying low over the Sonoran Desert, Border Patrol agents spotted a skeleton sprawled in the brush.

The harsh terrain just inside Arizona is a busy trafficking corridor for illegal immigrants; the person could have died while trying to sneak into the United States. But busy Interstate 8 runs nearby -- the person could have been a slain U.S. citizen, a suicide, a runaway.

The Border Patrol is grappling with just how to count the dead found along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. "It's rarely a cut-and-dry decision," said Joe Brigman, spokesman for Yuma Border Patrol. "In some cases, you just don't know."

Human rights activists say it's in the government's interest to keep that number low. They contend the agency tries to shave its count by excluding many skeletal remains, car-accident victims and bodies discovered by local law enforcement agencies.

Claudia Smith, a San Diego attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, says the ad hoc counting methods lack consistency from one government agency to the next -- and even sometimes from one Border Patrol sector to another.

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