WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Salvador González)

26 Jun 2020 | Commentary

COVID-19 Border Closure Could Lead to Jump in Migrant Deaths in Summer Months

On March 20, citing public health concerns amid COVID-19, the Trump administration closed the U.S.-Mexico border to most traffic in a way that virtually obliterated the ability to ask for asylum there. Just about everyone from Mexico and Central America who is caught gets expelled within hours—including unaccompanied children.

The U.S. border closure, combined with public health measures limiting migrants’ mobility across the hemisphere, has meant a sharp slide in Border Patrol’s apprehensions of migrants who seek protection in the United States. Apprehensions of children and families have fallen sharply since March 20; May 2020’s total (1,931) was 98 percent smaller than May 2019’s (95,961).

Migrants in this category, who include hundreds of thousands of children and family members in recent years, generally want to be caught. They cross to U.S. soil and await apprehension so that they may begin their asylum processes. (Even before COVID-19, the Trump administration had been putting in place several measures to make those processes difficult to impossible, even for asylum seekers presenting themselves at a port of entry.)

But another category of migrant apprehensions is largely unchanged. Single adults are still being apprehended in numbers approaching pre-pandemic levels: 19,544 in May 2020, compared with 22,396 in the last full pre-pandemic month of February.

In fact, the number of single adults from Mexico apprehended in May 2020 was the largest in the last 14 months. Even during the migrant wave of spring 2019, Border Patrol encountered slightly fewer Mexican adults (16,144 in May 2019) than it did in the pandemic month of May 2020 (16,230).

Though there are exceptions, not all adults traveling alone seek asylum: a significant proportion likely aim to avoid being apprehended. This raises urgent safety concerns as we enter the hottest part of the summer.

“Avoiding apprehension” often means traveling through wilderness, at the greatest possible distance from border law enforcement presence. Much of this wilderness is scorching-hot desert. Since 1998, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 7,805 migrants, most of them dead of exposure, dehydration, or drowning. A recent study about migrant deaths in South Texas found the real toll to be much higher in that region.

Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors. Since 1998, the agency has found the most migrant remains in its sectors in Tucson (Arizona), Rio Grande Valley (Texas), Laredo (Texas), and El Centro (California).

Alarmingly, three of these sectors are among the four in which Border Patrol apprehended the most single adults in May 2020, and since October 2018: Tucson, Rio Grande Valley, and Laredo. (The fourth is San Diego, California.) All of them have significant amounts of fencing, which only delays a single adult migrant’s journey for a few minutes when crossing in remote areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its response have wreaked havoc on economies in Mexico and Central America, while reducing remittances sent from the United States. Meanwhile, even as the pandemic rages, U.S. authorities keep deporting Mexican citizens back to Mexico—29,374 of them in March and April (Mexico hasn’t published May data yet). Many of these deportees were probably forced to leave families behind in the United States, creating a strong pull to return by any means necessary.

These are strong incentives for an increase in the kind of migration that seeks to avoid apprehension by traveling through some of the most hazardous areas of the border. Especially in the months of June through September, that increase is guaranteed to bring more death. During the last week of June, temperatures are expected to reach 109º in Calexico, California; 109º in Yuma, Arizona; 108º in Tucson, Arizona; 100º in Laredo, Texas; and 96º in Falfurrias, Texas.

The United States has spent 25 years building a border security apparatus that channels undocumented, apprehension-avoiding migrants into the most treacherous regions of the border. It has spent the last three years intensifying this apparatus still further, building more barriers and closing doors to asylum-seekers. The result is likely to be more death.

There’s no chance of easing this apparatus during the summer of 2020, with the Trump administration in its fourth year. The only viable goal in the next few months is to minimize death at the border through emergency measures. CBP and Border Patrol have fewer migrants to apprehend overall—and the agencies had no problem sending hundreds of agents to Washington to help confront protests in early June. U.S. border agencies must devote their excess capacity—which they clearly have as evidenced by their deployment during the Black Lives Matter protests— to search and rescue operations, in the hope of saving as many lives as possible this summer.