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HOUSTON — While the number of immigrants caught illegally crossing the Southwest border spiked this summer, the number of border deaths has decreased, authorities said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 284 migrant deaths on the border for the fiscal year beginning last October. That is down from 420 deaths during the same period last year, and 385 deaths five years ago.

Border Patrol officials credit the drop to their ability to apprehend more stranded migrants, thanks to additional staffing and upgraded surveillance technology.

In Arizona’s Tucson sector, where apprehensions are about a third of what they were 10 years ago, it’s no surprise that migrant deaths decreased to 100 so far this fiscal year, from 183 this time last year.

But in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where apprehensions more than doubled during the past decade to 251,000 so far this fiscal year, including a summer spike in Central American children and families, agents also reported fewer migrant deaths: 105 this fiscal year, compared to 149 the year before.

Border Patrol officials say that’s because of measures they have taken, including temporarily adding 350 agents for a total of about 3,250 in the sector, according to a spokesman. The agency has added more than half a dozen rescue beacons and 400 signs showing migrants where they are and how to call for help.

“Our increase in technology has also contributed to a decrease in deaths,” officials said in a statement. The technology includes five aerostat blimps previously used for surveillance in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The aerostats have assisted us in cutting our response times in half and have helped us better detect, identify, and respond to traffic, including individuals in distress,” Border Patrol officials said.

Some immigrant advocates disagree, saying annual comparisons don’t go far enough. They note that reported migrant deaths in the Rio Grande Valley have increased from 68 five years ago, and would be higher if the Border Patrol had devoted more resources to searching for the missing.

So far this year, Border Patrol has rescued about half as many migrants in the Rio Grande Valley as last year: 367 total.

Eddie Canales, who runs the South Texas Human Rights Center, says reported deaths are down this year because Border Patrol agents, swamped by the summer influx, are not searching enough for immigrants’ remains, “not because they’re diligently responding to reports of people missing.”

Where Canales is based in Brooks County, about 70 miles north of the border, he has been helping the small sheriff’s department respond to a flood of immigrants in recent years. He installs water barrels on ranch land, fields phone calls from relatives of missing migrants and searches for remains. He recently received a call about a Mexican man in his 40s left behind by a group migrating through the area in late July.

“One of the guys on the trek that made it through said not only was he left behind, but eight others were,” Canales said. “Eight bodies are somewhere in the county undiscovered.”

This month, the Texas State Guard has been deployed to the county to assist with distress calls and searches for remains, officials said.

“The help is needed,” Canales said. “The sheriff’s department is doing their best to prevent people from dying.”

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©2014 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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