Mass death has once again hit the U.S.-Mexico border. And once again, it didn’t have to happen. As the border zone enters the hottest weeks of the summer, the U.S. government must begin, right now, a fundamental re-examination of the policies—the decisions made, and not made—that are leading to the preventable deaths of hundreds of people.
That must begin with:
It’s hard to fathom the horror beheld by the San Antonio, Texas city worker who heard a cry for help coming from a trailer truck parked along a road on the city’s outskirts, on the evening of June 27. It’s even harder to fathom the suffering of the 62 migrants inside, including parents and children, locked in without ventilation or water.
Only 16 of them were still alive. The rest had succumbed, painfully, to heat stress and dehydration. As of mid-day on June 28, the death toll was reported at 50.
This is not the first mass death of migrants inside a cargo container near the U.S. border. Worse, the June 27 tragedy only modestly increases a 2022 migrant death toll on U.S. soil that had already appeared on course to break all previous records. Migrants continue to die at the U.S.-Mexico border, usually of drowning, dehydration, exposure, or falls from the border wall, with a frequency that seems unprecedented.
While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not reported official border-wide deaths data since 2020 (despite a legal requirement to do so), partial information points to this being the worst year yet.
By our best count, more than 25 Nicaraguan citizens fleeing the repressive Ortega regime have drowned in the Rio Grande just since March 4. Mexico’s Interior Secretariat reported on June 12 that its migration agency (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) recovered 33 bodies from the Rio Grande between January and May, of a total of 37 migrant remains recovered throughout the country during those months. Of the 37, five were women.
Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors. Though CBP is not reporting deaths comprehensively, here is some of what we’ve seen, from west to east:
In Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector, falls from especially high new segments of the border wall continue to cause a higher death toll. As documented in recent reports from the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Washington Post, the number of people dead or gravely injured from attempts to climb the border wall has multiplied since the Trump administration installed 30-foot high fencing.
“Since 2019, when the barrier’s height was raised to 30 feet along much of the border in California, the number of patients arriving at the UC San Diego Medical Center’s trauma ward after falling off the structure has jumped fivefold, to 375,” the Washington Post reported. “At Scripps Mercy Hospital, the other major trauma center for the San Diego area, border wall fall victims accounted for 16 percent of the 230 patients treated last month, a higher share than gunshot and stabbing cases, according to Vishal Bansal, the director of trauma.”
Migrants are drowning, too, in the San Diego Sector, when seeking to swim around the border fence that continues for about 100 yards into the Pacific Ocean.
To the east, in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, in western Arizona and eastern California near the Colorado River, Sector Chief Chris Clem reported “six migrant deaths” during the week of June 12 to 18.
In the Tucson Sector, which comprises most of Arizona’s border with Mexico, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 48 people since October, according to the Tucson Sentinel. The agency’s fatality numbers, though, are consistently lower than those compiled by local officials and humanitarian groups: the Pima County Medical Examiner has received the remains of 110 people found in the Sonoran Desert since October (Pima County includes Tucson). Together with the humanitarian group Humane Borders, the Medical Examiner recovered 225 remains of people believed to have been border crossers during the 2021 calendar year; some of that number may have died in prior years.
East of Tucson, in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which covers 264 border miles in far west Texas and all of New Mexico, the agency reports recovering the remains of 37 migrants who died of injuries, drowning, dehydration, heat exposure, or vehicle strikes since October, according to a thoroughly reported El Paso Times story. Border Patrol had recovered 39 remains in all of fiscal 2021, and fiscal 2022 still has 3 very hot months to go.
Fifteen of the thirty-seven migrants who have died in the sector in 2022 drowned in fast-flowing irrigation canals that run from the Rio Grande. At least 10 people drowned in the two weeks following June 9. Fernando García of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, said, “We have never seen so many deaths in a short period of time. The structure of that canal means that whoever falls there does not come out alive.”
Five of the sector’s thirty-seven deaths in 2022 have been heat-related: while the El Paso area’s Chihuahuan Desert is not as intensely hot as the Tucson and Yuma sectors’ Sonoran Desert, it is still deadly, and climate change is making it more so.
In the El Paso Sector alone, CBP reports that 229 migrants have suffered injuries since October from falls from the border wall. Injuries range “from ankle injuries to brain injuries,” according to CNN. Some falls are fatal, like that of a man who fell from an El Paso Sector border wall segment near the Santa Teresa, New Mexico port of entry in the pre-dawn hours of June 17. He died the next day after suffering “a brain hemorrhage, skull fracture, sternum fracture and broken ribs.”
In Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector in remote west Texas—the part of the border that sees the fewest migrants—the agency has recovered 24 remains during the first 8 months of fiscal year 2022, already tying the number for all of fiscal year 2021.
In mid-Texas’s Del Rio Sector, Border Patrol’s sector chief reported 10 deaths over late May’s Memorial Day weekend. Sector Chief Jason Owens tweeted that his agents had encountered “6 deceased persons” over the May 7-8 weekend.
Some, probably most, of the dead found in Del Rio appear to be drownings in the Rio Grande. On May 2, a Nicaraguan man drowned in the swiftly flowing river between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas. Texas National Guardsmen told Fox News reporter Bryan Llenas, whose film crew captured the broad-daylight drowning, that they are prohibited from attempting rescues after 22-year-old Guardsman Bishop Evans died while trying to rescue a migrant in Eagle Pass on April 25.
In the Rio Grande Valley sector of south Texas, the easternmost border sector, dozens of migrants die each year about 80 miles north of the border. In Brooks County, Texas, migrants get lost while walking to evade a Border Patrol checkpoint. (See the 2021 documentary Missing in Brooks County.) Eddie Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center told USA Today that 36 human remains have already been found in the county in 2022. The grim count for all of 2021 was 119.
All of this was before the death of 50 people in San Antonio on June 27.
Border Patrol has counted over 8,600 migrant remains on U.S. soil, mostly of dehydration, exposure, and drowning, since 1998. The agency has yet to share public reporting of migrant deaths in fiscal year 2021, though CNN reported last October that the agency had counted a record 557 remains that year, more than double the 247 found in 2020.
Border Patrol, meanwhile, stands accused of under-reporting migrant deaths border-wide. Over the past 10 years or so, Border Patrol has been reporting fewer deaths than local humanitarian groups or medical examiners in their regions of responsibility, leaving out of its count the remains of migrants found by other entities. This is the subject of an April 20 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that Border Patrol has been undercounting the actual number of migrant deaths. For example, GAO found that Border Patrol in Arizona routinely reports finding roughly half as many remains as does the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.
Within hours of the news from San Antonio, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a tweet blaming the Biden administration and its “deadly open border policies.” While neglecting to show respect for, or to express grief for, the dead, the Governor’s argument is factually wrong. If anything, the Biden administration shares blame for continuing two restrictive policies that Greg Abbott ardently supports: “Prevention through Deterrence” and Title 42 pandemic expulsions.
In the early 1990s, as the first segments of border wall went up and Border Patrol’s personnel strength began a fivefold increase, U.S. policymakers assumed that pushing undocumented migrants away from densely populated areas, and towards treacherous deserts and rivers, would deter and reduce migration. Border Patrol called it “Prevention through Deterrence.”
As current migration statistics show, this policy didn’t reduce migration. But it caused the number of migrant deaths to explode, first in deserts east of San Diego in California, and in Arizona, then later in Texas.
U.S. policymakers know full well that the conditions are deadly. “The terrain along the Southwest Border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert that migrants must hike after crossing the border are unforgiving,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus stated in its June 2022 migration update. But the agency’s only response has been a modest increase in search-and-rescue personnel, and in rescue beacons placed in some sectors, at congressional urging, which have not been enough to keep up with the death toll. It was not until mid-June 2022 that Border Patrol began distributing “Heat Stress Kits/Go-Bags” to agents assigned to desert sectors—and then only on a pilot basis, at two Arizona stations.
The situation is worsened further by the “Title 42” pandemic border policy, put in place by the Trump administration in March 2020, which closes official border crossings to people who wish to seek asylum, expels apprehended asylum seekers without giving them a chance to ask for protection, and incentivizes repeat border crossing attempts by quickly returning those who are caught. Migrants have now been expelled more than 2 million times. The Biden administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had sought to end Title 42 by May 23, 2022, but a Louisiana federal judge, responding to a lawsuit from Republican state attorneys-general, ordered that it remain in place.
Across from El Paso, according to Border Report, “Officials estimate that at least 15,000 migrants are in [Ciudad] Juarez waiting for the end of Title 42 so they can apply for asylum in the U.S. “ El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said, “If Title 42 was not in place, they would be able to form, be able to come across and the process would flow. When the process doesn’t flow, there is a huge sense of desperation.”
As a result, said García of the Border Network for Human Rights, “They are still crossing, and they are dying in extraordinary numbers.” The tragedies recall the drowning, three years ago this week, of blocked Salvadoran asylum seeker Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria. The photo of their bodies at the Rio Grande’s bank in Matamoros, Mexico shocked the world.
This year’s probable record increase in fatalities along the border is partly a consequence of a larger overall population of migrants. But it would not be anywhere near this severe without “Prevention Through Deterrence” and Title 42.
Many of the people trapped in that truck in San Antonio could have approached a land port of entry (official border crossing) and asked the CBP officials there to apply for asylum in the United States, as is their legal right. But that is impossible, as Title 42 has left the ports of entry closed to asylum seekers.
Some of the people on that truck may have come for economic reasons. Guatemala, the country of citizenship of many of the victims, is facing the possibility of actual famine this year. Many of those who died in that shipping container could have sought temporary work in a United States whose labor market is tighter right now than at any time in its recent history. But the U.S. government has been making less than 10,000 temporary work visas available each year to citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (An increase to 150,000 may be announced next month.)
Prevention through deterrence and Title 42 need to end now, along with “Remain in Mexico,” “metering,” or any other policy that seeks to thwart the legal right to seek asylum. Processing and alternatives-to-detention capacity for asylum seekers must grow to match what is required of a moment of historic migration to countries all around the hemisphere. There must be a process for expanded legal pathways such as work visas so that people who need to survive can be matched with a very tight job market.
That’s what a policy that prevents death and honors the sanctity of life looks like. We should not be tolerating such massive, preventable, painful death on U.S. soil. May the tragedy in San Antonio sound the alarms.