- More asylum seekers have been trying to enter during the summer, leading US Border Patrol officials to issue warnings and train its agents to help keep migrants from perishing in the sun.
- Border Patrol officials are arming agents in Arizona with “Heat Stress Kits” and training them in heat-stress reduction to prevent more migrant deaths.
- In May, border agents and officials encountered 239,416 migrants at the southwest border – up from 180,597 the previous May.
The terrain around Brooks County in South Texas is vast, harsh and hot, dotted with thorn-covered shrubs and offering little cover from the broiling summer sun.
That hasn’t stopped the wave after wave of undocumented migrants from traipsing through and getting lost or stranded as they seek cities to the north, said Eddie Canales, head of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, which helps rescue stranded migrants. Last weekend, a phone call to his call center revealed that a group of 26 migrants had gotten lost and needed to be rescued. Having run out of water, they resorted to drinking river water they had collected from the polluted Rio Grande.
Last year, Brooks County collected 119 migrant bodies from the sun-baked terrain, the highest number in nearly a decade, Canales said. So far this year, they’ve seen 36 corpses. But, as the summer deepens and days get hotter, he expects that number to quickly climb.
“They come more in the summer now,” Canales said. “There’s no deterrence. These people come because they’re desperate.”
In years past, the number of crossings by undocumented migrants typically waned during summer months, as many avoided the lethal summer heat. But more recently, faced with US policies that delay their entry and deteriorating conditions in their home countries, more asylum seekers have been trying to enter during the summer, leading US Border Patrol officials to issue warnings and train its agents to help keep migrants from perishing in the sun.
In May, border agents and officials encountered 239,416 migrants at the southwest border – up from 180,597 the previous May, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics released Wednesday. June numbers are still being compiled, but migrant shelter officials expect equally high numbers as last year, when more than 189,304 migrants crossed over, a two-decade high.
More migrants mean more rescue attempts by US Border Patrol agents. So far this fiscal year, the agency has conducted 10,588 rescue missions, on pace to surpass the record 12,833 launched last year. Last week, CBP announced it was launching a new “heat mitigation effort” in southern Arizona that includes arming 500 agents with “Heat Stress Kits” and heat-stress training for its agents.
“As the summer heat approaches, human smugglers will continue to exploit vulnerable populations and recklessly endanger the lives of migrants for financial gain,” Tucson Sector Chief John Modlin said in a statement. “The Arizona terrain is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert that migrants must hike after crossing the border are unforgiving.”
Trump administration-era policies such as Title 42, which returns migrants to Mexico to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Remain in Mexico, which places many migrants in Mexico to await their US court hearing, have led to more repeat crossers and more migrants willing to risk the perilous journey during the summer, said Jason De León, executive director of the Tucson-based Colibri Center for Human Rights, which helps locate and rescue stranded migrants.
Of the more than 239,000 migrants encountered in the May by Border Patrol, one-fourth of them were repeat crossers, according to the CBP statistics.
“These policies that are designed to deter people are actually making them cross through the desert,” he said. “They had no intention of crossing the desert but were so tired of waiting, they just go for it.”
Migrants rarely carry enough water to survive the 10- to 14-day trek across the mountains and deserts of southern Arizona, De León said. Desperate, they drink putrid water from cattle tanks and end up with severe diarrhea or vomiting, worsening their dehydration, they said.
From January to May this year, the center fielded 272 calls for help to its call center, up from 172 calls during the same period last year, according to group statistics. They’re projecting 78 calls for help during June – up from 61 last June.
“You’re walking one of the most remote, extreme environments in the western hemisphere,” De León said. “The idea of trying to walk through 35 miles of that is unbelievable.”
Often, many end up on the examining tables of Dr. Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner of Pima County, Arizona. Last fiscal year, his office examined the remains of 226 undocumented migrants, the highest count since 2000, according to county records.
So far this fiscal year, they’ve examined 110 bodies, but that number is expected to quickly climb during the hot summer months, Hess said.
Nearly all the migrants he’s processed this year have been dressed in camouflage clothing, had shoes wrapped in carpet swaths to avoid leaving footprints for Border Patrol agents or had black water bottles – all signs that they were trying to sneak past agents, not turn themselves in, he said.
“Someone going through that effort is not desiring to be apprehended,” Hess said.
The majority of migrants traversing the harsh terrain in Brooks County in South Texas are Mexicans, while some are from Central America, Canales said. Lately, a growing number of Guatemalans have been trying to cross through the area of Big Bend National Park to the north, an area historically avoided by migrants due to its soaring canyons and the harsh environs of the Chihuahuan Desert, they said.
In Brooks County, the key to rescuing migrants is having them or a family member call their hotline as soon as they get in trouble. He instructs them to open their phone’s maps app and take a picture of their position, then text them the photo or send it via WhatsApp. He then forwards it to the nearest Border Patrol station. Canales has direct phone numbers to each of the nearby stations in the area.
If he acts fast and they’re lucky, the Border Patrol finds the migrants. Often, they’re too late.
“It’s moving up fast,” Canales said of the number of recovered remains. “They get lost and they run out of water and they die. It’s a bad, bad situation out here.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.