On a broiling-hot day in the middle of July, Ambrosia Martinez-Dominguez set out on foot with several companions in Mexico and entered the sprawling New Mexico desert. Her body was found by Border Patrol agents the next day.
Like dozens of people before her, Martinez-Dominguez collapsed from heat exhaustion on the way to the promised land. In a ritual carried out almost weekly by New Mexico medical examiners, her remains were retrieved from the desert and taken to Deming, N.M., at a cost of $150 to taxpayers. An additional $330 was spent to transport her corpse north to Albuquerque for an autopsy that cost an additional $2,500.
Between 2000 and today, 90 bodies have been recovered in New Mexico near the Mexican border, state officials said. That number does not include illegal immigrants who died after they were struck by cars while trying to cross busy Interstate 10, or who were killed in accidents when their vehicles transporting them sped out of control, sometimes while fleeing police.
"We have so many Mexican nationals in our crypts . . . we really don't know what to do," said Amy Wyman, supervisor of investigations for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.
Over the past five years, millions have been spent by states to examine the dead and prepare them for their final rest. But it is only one of the many ways that the uncontrolled flow of immigrants from Mexico is costing border communities that many Americans rarely consider.
Thousands of illegal immigrants are treated at local hospitals often for injuries suffered during the hazardous journey north. At Mimbres Memorial Hospital in Deming, nearly a quarter of all patients treated last year were illegal immigrants who law enforcement officials brought in, or who stepped across the Mexican border, said they had a medical emergency and persuaded a rancher to call an ambulance, said hospital administrator Derrick Yu.
The border issue was thrust into the public eye last month when Democratic Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona declared states of emergency at their borders with Mexico. Richardson's declaration freed $1.75 million to help four border counties: Hidalgo, Dona Ana, Grant and Luna. The Arizona declaration granted law enforcement agencies about $1.4 million.
Both governors said that unchecked border crossings are increasingly threatening the well-being of their citizens, and that the fight to stem the tide is draining their financial resources at an alarming rate.
Law enforcement officials are raking in overtime dollars because there is so much human trafficking and drug smuggling. In Arizona alone, nearly 54,000 pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana have been confiscated by police officials so far this year, dwarfing the previous year's total, said Jeanine L'Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Napolitano.
L'Ecuyer said reports of assaults against officers by illegal immigrants are rising, as are auto thefts and incidents of vandalism on property near the border.
In New Mexico, ranchers who raise livestock at the Mexican border say they see them coming nearly every night. "I caught 27 of them myself," said Steve Allen, a New Mexico rancher. His wife, Kim, said immigrants have broken into the family home three times in the past two years, taking any food they could carry. Once, a pickup truck was stolen.
"We are so undermanned," said Teresa Johnson, who lives on a ranch near the Mexican border in Columbus, N.M., with her husband, Joe. "If you call the state police it would be two hours before they get here. But they do all they can."
Luna County Undersheriff Raymond Cobos stood on a hill overlooking his vast territory, about 3,000 square miles of scorched desert and sloping trails illuminated by a white-hot sun. "There are people out there right now. They can see us. They're waiting for us to leave, waiting for night," he said looking grim.
The place where Martinez-Dominguez died, near I-10, had the markings of a staging area where immigrants pause to drop the loads they hauled from Mexico in black plastic garbage bags. Bottles of water, pants, bras, boxers, toothbrushes and cans of Spam and other snack foods have turned wide swaths of desert into something resembling a landfill.
Martinez-Dominguez's whereabouts were discovered after some of her companions were captured by the Border Patrol. They found her on July 15, her lifeless body propped up under a makeshift shelter. Her Mexican identification card was in a pocket, a stroke of luck for investigators.
Ordinarily, medical investigators said they are forced to scan the fingerprints, trace dental records or contact the Mexican consulate, which checks records in Mexico. A single investigator in Albuquerque is paid $37,000 a year to track down relatives.
In rare cases such as Martinez-Dominguez's, the job is easy. Word of her demise made it back to her home town by telephone even before the Mexican consulate was contacted. Her parents had shown up at the Border Patrol station in El Paso asking for their daughter's remains.
Other unidentified bodies remain in the state morgue. "We will hold on to them for several months if we feel the family will come forward, but we're legally obligated to hold them for only two weeks," Wyman said.
Eventually, the state makes arrangements to burn or bury them at varying costs of as much as $3,000. The costs fall on the county where bodies are found. Most counties opt to cremate remains because it is cheaper.
In New Mexico, 19 people were found dead in the desert. "And those are just the ones we know about," said Fred Rossiter, a state medical investigator based in Luna County.
"I get so many I lose track," Rossiter said at Baca's Funeral Home in Deming, where the bodies are taken. "We have people pass away other than on the desert, like in traffic accidents. We've had seven fatalities with illegal aliens in motor vehicle accidents."
Last year, 14 immigrants were killed when a van fleeing police spun out of control, he said.
In Arizona, 224 have died this year in two large desert sectors, Yuma and Tucson, according to public records. Overall, the state has seen a 23 percent increase in deaths related to desert crossings in the past two years, state officials said.
Help is on the way to ease the problem, although it does not amount to much, officials said. The Luna County Sheriff's Department stands to receive $75,000 after the state declared a state of emergency.
"We'll go through that pretty fast," Cobos said.