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Heat, policy shifts make crossing the border more dangerous, aid groups say

As a punishing heat wave rolls across Arizona and other states, aid groups working along the border say migrants are still making the dangerous trek to the U.S. 

Gail Kocourek is a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans, a group that sets out water for migrants trekking through Arizona’s desert borderland.

It’s been two months since Title 42, the pandemic-era protocol that blocked asylum at the border, came to an end. The Biden administration also enacted a new rule that narrows asylum eligibility again.

Kocourek says volunteers saw a dip in the number of people attempting to cross the desert or present to border officers immediately afterward, but that's changed.

"It’s picked up again, but not the numbers we’re seeing before ... where we might see 100 asylum seekers, maybe we’re seeing 30," she said. "It just depends too, that goes up and down."

Kocourek says surging summer temperatures paired with misinformation given to migrants about the journey could lead to more deaths.

Earlier this month, a group of human rights activists in southern Arizona spent the scorching July 4 holiday placing wooden crosses in the desert borderlands.

Volunteers loaded trucks with water and emergency supplies in Tucson and headed to a remote strip of desert near Ajo.

There, on July 4, 1980, a group of 26 Salvadorans got lost trying to cross the border. Half of the group died that night, including a pregnant woman.

Dora Rodriguez was one of the survivors. Rodriguez was 19 then and fleeing her country's civil war.

"It’s just remembering my friends who didn’t make it, and giving them respect and honor, and remembering everyone that right now is crossing in these terrible temperatures," she said. 

She and others were rescued by the Border Patrol the next day. Today, Rodriguez helps other asylum seekers through her own aid group called Salvavision. She and a local artist who makes the wooden crosses have returned to the site where her travel companions died for the last few years to place them. 

A count by the aid group Humane Borders shows more than 50 people have died along the Arizona borderland so far this year.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.Prior to joining KJZZ, she covered border and immigration at Arizona Public Media, where she was awarded a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her coverage of Indigenous-led protests against border wall construction.Reznick started her career working in bilingual newsrooms and as a freelance journalist in Amman, Jordan. Her reporting on migration, refugees and human rights has appeared on PRX’s The World, Al Jazeera and Nova PBS, among others. As a recipient of the International Labour Organization's FAIRWAY Reporting Fellowship, she spent six months reporting on labor migration issues across Arab States.Originally from Flagstaff, she likes climbing, being outdoors and Pluto.