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As Desert Deaths Soar, a Morgue Grows Crowded

by James C. McKinley Jr.

TUCSON - Dr. Bruce Parks unzips a white body bag on a steel gurney and gingerly lifts out a human skull and mandible, turning them over in his hands and examining the few teeth still in their sockets.

The body bag, coated with dust, also contains a broken pelvis, a femur and a few smaller bones found in the desert in June, along with a pair of white sneakers.

"These are people who are probably not going to be identified," said Dr. Parks, the chief medical examiner for Pima County. There are eight other body bags crowded on the gurney.

The Pima County morgue is running out of space as the number of Latin American immigrants found dead in the deserts around Tucson has soared this year during a heat wave.

The rise in deaths comes as Arizona is embroiled in a bitter legal battle over a new law intended to discourage illegal immigrants from settling here by making it a state crime for them to live or seek work.

But the law has not kept the immigrants from trying to cross hundreds of miles of desert on foot in record-breaking heat. The bodies of 57 border crossers have been brought in during July so far, putting it on track to be the worst month for such deaths in the last five years.

Since the first of the year, more than 150 people suspected of being illegal immigrants have been found dead, well above the 107 discovered during the same period in each of the last two years. The sudden spike in deaths has overwhelmed investigators and pathologists at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. Two weeks ago, Dr. Parks was forced to bring in a refrigerated truck to store the remains of two dozen people because the building's two units were full.

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