MEXICO CITY — Mexico's National Human Rights Commission will print and distribute at least 70,000 maps showing immigrants the safest routes to cross the border into Arizona, officials said Tuesday.
The project, which immediately drew fire from groups organized against illegal immigration, is aimed at reducing the number of people who die trying to cross 50 miles of Sonoran Desert to reach highways in southern Arizona, according to Humane Borders, the Tucson-based humanitarian group that created the maps.
Steel barriers and stepped-up border patrols in California over the last decade have pushed immigrant smuggling routes east to more sparsely populated stretches of the Arizona border. Summer temperatures there routinely surpass 100 degrees.
"We can close the border with enough money and political will, which I don't think we have, but we don't have to kill people by forcing them out into the desert," said the Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders.
The Mexican government said 441 of its citizens died last year on the border, most in Arizona.
The new maps will show spots where people have died -- presumably discouraging some prospective migrants -- as well as main roads, rescue beacons and the locations of water stations maintained by Humane Borders.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors this fall approved spending $25,000 to support the group's water stations after administrators argued that it was cheaper than the $300,000 the county spends recovering and storing the bodies of immigrants who died in failed desert crossings.
Hoover said work on the desert maps began in May using government data and donated mapping software. The maps also show how far an average adult can walk in one, two or three days.
"The idea is to put the fear of God into some of these migrants so they'll stay in the main corridors and don't go where there's no water," said Hoover, pastor of the First Christian Church in Tucson.
Jose Luis Soberanes, president of Mexico's human rights commission, thanked Hoover and his group Tuesday, saying they have been saving the lives of migrants.
The group last year compiled safety tips for desert crossings that covered proper clothing and how much water to bring for each day's journey. Mexico was criticized for printing a million of the 32-page booklets for migrants headed to the United States.
Jack Martin, special projects director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the maps and other efforts only encourage illegal immigration.
"The fact that there's an American group doing this," he said, "sends the message that there are Americans who think that it's perfectly acceptable to enter the U.S. illegally, and probably will be down on the border aiding and abetting the illegals when they get in the U.S."
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill in December that would add 700 miles of border fencing and make illegal immigration a felony. The bill is expected to reach the Senate next month.
Mexico opposes increased border enforcement without creating a broad temporary worker program and provisions for the millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States.
Times staff writer Richard Marosi in San Diego and Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.