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Massive increase in migrant deaths, rescues reported in El Paso sector for FY 2021

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The El Paso Border Patrol Sector saw staggering increases in migrant deaths and rescues in fiscal year 2021, reflecting national trends of a deadly year for migrants, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Migrant deaths in the El Paso sector increased 290% between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, from 10 deaths to 39, according to CBP El Paso sector spokesperson Valeria Morales. The 2021 number was nearly double that of fiscal year 2019, which had the previous highest death count in recent years.

The number of migrant rescues increased even more dramatically, from 12 in 2020 to 688 in 2021 — an increase of more than 5,500%. Morales said the high figures are due to increased migrant encounters overall, and a higher number of single adult migrants evading arrest rather than giving themselves up.

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CBP also reported an increase in migrant rescues across the entire Southwest border, up from 5,071 in fiscal year 2020 to 12,833 in fiscal year 2021.

“Most of our apprehensions, they were evading arrest,” Morales said about the El Paso sector rescues. “So they were trying to avoid Border Patrol, they were running away from Border Patrol, they were trekking (in) areas that are dangerous. Our different environments pose different dangers. Also here in our urban environment we have our canals, and during the summer months we have a lot of canal rescues.”

Morales said there were many rescues at Mount Cristo Rey due to the rocky and slippery terrain. Several rescue operations were also conducted in the desert near the Santa Teresa Border Patrol station.

“We were finding migrants that were dehydrated, they were lost, and then they were calling 911 for assistance,” she said. Morales also described increased migrant activity in more remote areas of the El Paso sector, which encompasses 125,500 square miles and stretches from Fort Hancock, Texas, to Lordsburg, New Mexico, near the Arizona border.

Although the Department of Homeland Security has not yet shared comprehensive data on migrant deaths nationwide, CNN first reported there were 557 migrant deaths on the Southwest border in fiscal year 2021, the majority of which were related to heat exposure.

“We are heartbroken and infuriated by newly released Border Patrol data recording an all-time high of 557 migrant deaths at our Southwest border in just the past year,” said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, in a press release leading up to the Nov. 6 binational Mass held in Ciudad Juárez in honor of migrants who have died at the border.

About 150 people, many of them migrants currently staying in shelters in Ciudad Juárez, attended the Mass, which was celebrated by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Bishop José Guadalupe Torres of Juárez and Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces.

The root cause of the higher number of rescues and deaths can be linked to Title 42, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel for the American Immigration Council.

Title 42 is a controversial public health policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border. The policy was implemented under former President Donald Trump and has been continued under President Joe Biden. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than 1 million migrants have been expelled using Title 42.

“Under Title 42, individuals who are apprehended crossing the border are not given an opportunity to seek asylum, even if they are fearful of persecution in their own countries, and in many cases, they are simply expelled right back to Mexico within a matter of hours,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “This allows them to cross again the next day, and so as a result, we are seeing the highest rate of people crossing the border more than once in over a decade.”

Migrant apprehensions by Border Patrol reached an all-time high in fiscal year 2021, driven in part by repeat crossings linked to Title 42. That, combined with record-breaking summer heat in the Southwest, made for a deadly combination, Reichlin-Melnick said.

“This year was in many ways a perfect storm: it was a hot summer, and we had in place Title 42, which incentivized people to make multiple attempts, each time putting their lives at risk,” he said.

Reichlin-Melnick emphasized that migrant death statistics provided by CBP are almost certainly undercounted, citing cases where the Border Patrol doesn’t have jurisdiction, or can’t prove the nationality of a corpse and therefore can’t verify that the person was a migrant. There are other cases where someone dies in a remote part of the desert and is never found.

Morales said there are cases in the El Paso sector where migrant deaths might not be included in CBP numbers. “It just depends on what happened,” she said, citing incidents when other authorities may have jurisdiction instead of Border Patrol depending on who encountered the body.

“In Lordsburg for example, that area’s so large that even the local agencies can encounter migrants that are dead in the desert, that’s something that’s technically not under our custody,” she said.

A man whose body was found feet away from the border wall on Nov. 7 near the Santa Teresa port of entry would not count in CBP’s migrant death numbers, Morales said, even though a Department of Defense Air Support unit that was assisting Border Patrol was the first to spot the person, who was discovered on the Mexican side of the wall.

“We never had custody and we don’t know his nationality,” she said. “He could have been a local for all we know, one of the smugglers, we don’t know that.”

But Garcia, of the Border Network for Human Rights, said the multitude of deaths that don’t get counted underscores the problem.

“This (number of migrant deaths along the Southwest border for fiscal year 2021) is even more appalling due to the fact that Border Patrol data on migrant deaths is already conservative,” Garcia said. “Their lives mattered, and the responsibility for their deaths falls on the shoulders of the Biden administration and Congress.”

Corrie Boudreaux contributed to this story.

Cover photo: An altar dedicated to 557 migrants who died at the border stands at “El Punto” in Juárez during a binational Mass celebrated by the bishops of El Paso, Las Cruces and Juárez on Nov. 6. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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