Excessive heat wave deadly for migrants crossing border

Greg Hess, Pima County Chief Medical Examiner, says he expects deaths to exceed last year's numbers due to Arizona's recent excessive heat.
Published: Jul. 14, 2023 at 7:17 PM MST|Updated: Jul. 14, 2023 at 7:33 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) The excessive heat is about to get even worse, and we’ve extended the stretch of First Alert Weather days through next Friday with highs still well above 110 degrees and overnight lows in the 90s. The heat is having deadly impacts along the border. “We had two, or three, actually suspected migrant heat-related deaths that we recovered today,” said Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.

The excessive heat is not a major deterrent for those intent on crossing the border. “Many of these deaths we do believe are due to environmental heat exposure or hyperthermia combined with dehydration. From people crossing, it’s just so hot outside,” Hess said.

He says deaths this year have been on track with previous years. But he also says he expects this heat wave to change that. “It’s directly proportional to how hot it is outside and we see deaths due to that,” Hess said.

One reason is dehydration. Hess says those traveling miles on foot through the desert can’t possibly carry the amount of water they need. But even if they did, it may not be enough. “Just because you have water doesn’t mean you can’t die from being too hot. If you are in an environment where you can’t maintain a stable body temperature for whatever reason, you’re exerting yourself, you’re walking and can’t get out of the heat, you might die from it,” said Hess

“When you find a dead body, it’s not a pleasant experience no matter how tough you are,” said humanitarian aid Gail Kocurek. Kocurek works with Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian group trying to ensure those who cross don’t pay for the decision with their lives. “They’re shocked when they find out how far it is. They’re shocked when they find out how hot it is. They’re shocked when they find out how dangerous it is, because they get lied to,” Kocurek said.

Kocurek helps stock water stations along the border. Not everyone agrees with the practice. But she says in heat like this, it’s a difference between life and death. “More than 90% of them want us to call the border patrol because they know that they are going to die when they continue going,” she said.

After the bodies are recovered, getting them home or notifying the family proves to be another challenge. Hess says most of them are completely unidentifiable. They either don’t travel with any documentation or travel under an alias.

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