Why the tragic deaths of migrants in Texas won't be an isolated case

Rafael Carranza
Arizona Republic

Even before the grim discovery of dozens of bodies found locked inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, deaths along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have been happening with increasing frequency as more migrants seek to evade detection from U.S. authorities on their way to the United States. 

The Monday tragedy in Texas, which has resulted in at least 53 deaths and 11 others hospitalized, is just the latest entry in a long, growing list of incidents resulting in the loss of countless migrant lives. And one that is expected to continue growing as sweltering temperatures settle in along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hours after the discovery of dozens of bodies suffocated inside the tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed Democratic President Joe Biden. 

"They are a result of his deadly open border policies," Abbott, who is up for re-election, said on Twitter. "They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law."

Biden responded Tuesday with a written statement that accused Abbott, though not by name, of political grandstanding. "Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful," he said. 

For migrant advocates and analysts, there is plenty of responsibility to go around for Monday's deaths, as well as for a rising number of migrant deaths along each portion of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The blame lies squarely with Greg Abbott and Joe Biden," said Laura Peña, the director for the Texas Civil Rights Project's Beyond Borders program. "When people are shuttered from all access to safety because of policies like Operation Lone Star and Title 42, they are forced to take more dangerous routes to the border." 

Peña referred to two policies both leaders have implemented.

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Biden has continued to enforce Title 42, a pandemic-era health rule that President Donald Trump's administration implemented in March 2020 that shut off access to asylum at the border.

Biden's attempts to end the rule last year ran into judicial roadblocks, in large part because a coalition of Republican states, led by Texas, sued to stop him. 

Abbott has made border security a key focus of his re-election campaign. He deployed the state's National Guard to the Texas border and has been detaining migrants and busing asylum seekers to Washington, D.C., under a program known as Operation Lone Star.

"The reason why this semitruck was so far north from the border in San Antonio is because there's checkpoints leaving all of the border cities, highway Border Patrol checkpoints," said Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney in El Paso who regularly works with asylum seekers in neighboring Ciudad Juárez. 

"Those are actually incredibly difficult to get past as somebody who's undocumented, incredibly difficult to get around in the desert because they're in such remote areas," she added. "And so people are making these horrific choices because they cannot access the legal system for asylum seekers."

The consequences of these restrictions to asylum access have been playing out across the entire U.S.-Mexico border for some time now. And there are indications that the situation will only get worse. 

The San Antonio smuggling tragedy was not an isolated incident

The death toll of Monday's smuggling attempt has continued to climb. Initially, investigators declared 46 people had died at the scene, and 16 others were hospitalized. As of Wednesday morning, the number had climbed to 53 dead while 11 more people remained hospitalized, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

While it may rank among the deadliest smuggling incidents in U.S. history, the San Antonio tragedy is not an isolated case. It's not even the only tragedy involving migrants smuggled inside a tractor-trailer this month in the Laredo Sector.

On June 3, La Salle County deputies found a tractor-trailer parked on the side of an access road to Interstate 35, about 56 miles north of Laredo. They called in Border Patrol agents, who helped detain 20 migrants that had run away from the scene. Deputies reported several deaths.

The La Salle County Sheriff's Office has not responded to requests for more information. But that underscores the frequency with which migrants deaths have become commonplace along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. 

An ambulance leaves the scene where police said dozens of people were found dead in a semitrailer in a remote area in southwestern San Antonio, Monday, June 27, 2022.

In June, numerous situations showed the deadly risks that migrants and asylum seekers face in trying to reach the United States. 

On June 2, a Honduran man died in a Tucson hospital from brain injuries after the SUV he was traveling in with eight other people rolled over four times as they attempted to evade a checkpoint near Arivaca, Arizona, four days earlier.

That is the most recent fatality in a string of high-speed pursuits along southern Arizona, driven in large part by the recruitment via social media of inexperienced teens and young adults to smuggle people farther inland. 

On June 8, El Paso firefighters pulled a Mexican man from the All American canal, which runs parallel to the border fence east of the Paso del Norte border crossing. A Border Patrol agent called for assistance when the agent spotted the man struggling against the current. He died in a hospital the following day. 

At least fifteen drownings were recorded in canals along the border in El Paso. Most of them have happened since early June when the water released from the Rio Grande to irrigate agricultural fields creates fast-moving currents in the canals, the El Paso Times reported.

On June 17, a migrant man fell as he attempted to climb over the 30-foot border fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Agents found him unresponsive on the ground and took him to a hospital with numerous fractures, including a broken skull. He died at the main hospital in El Paso the next day.

Under the previous administration, the U.S. government replaced 18-foot barriers with fencing measuring 30 feet in height. In 2021, the El Paso hospital said they treated about 300 people who injured themselves after falling from the border wall.

On June 18, one person died in a use-of-force incident following a pursuit near Falfurrias, Texas. Details about this case remain unclear . CBP statistics show an increase this year in the number of use-of-force incidents involving a vehicle or firearm. The number of assaults against border agents and officers also have trended upward this year.

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Migrant deaths difficult to track

Families and single adults wait with their papers in hand to be processed by Border Patrol agents. The group of about 30 people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally near Somerton, Arizona, on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

Tracking migrants deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border is a tough order. Most data, including the one tracked by the U.S. government, is incomplete.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in April found gaps in the way U.S. Border Patrol records migrant deaths. That count does not include discoveries made by other groups and organizations, and they haven't posted information since 2020.

Estimates from the United Nation's International Office for Migration put 2021 as the deadliest year on record for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The IOM registered 728 missing and dead migrants that year. With the 53 deaths this week, the tally for 2022 rose to 293.  

Areas with more reliable statistics showed a similar trend. Along Arizona's Sonoran Desert, 2021 also was a record-breaking year.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner tracks comprehensive data on the recovery of migrant remains in the region. It recorded finding the remains of 226 migrants scattered throughout the Sonoran Desert in 2021, more than any other year in the past two decades since the office began logging that data.

The medical examiner's office has recorded 66 discoveries so far in 2022, just as triple-digit temperatures begin to climb even higher and the explosive seasonal monsoon storms start. 

Adam Isaacson with the Washington Office for Latin America said the number of migrant deaths is expected to keep pace this year, in large part because more people are attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that in May, border agents and officers encountered 239,416 migrants along the border, the third consecutive month of record-breaking encounters. Less than half of them were expelled under Title 42, but at this pace the number of migrant encounters along the southern border is still projected to reach historic highs.

Isaacson said there's a worrying trend among those numbers: increasingly, families with children are taking risks that put their lives in jeopardy. At least two minors were among the 53 migrants who died in San Antonio.  

Four undocumented migrants wait to be processed in a ditch near Benson, Ariz. On the night of Feb. 28, after a dangerous pursuit, law enforcement took a fleeing Honda Civic off road. The driver was speeding, turning the headlights on and off and veering into oncoming traffic.

Historically, most migrants had been single adult men. But in 2013 more children and families began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of them would turn themselves in, Isaacson said.

"There was no reason for them to try to avoid apprehension, right? And then came Remain in Mexico, and then came Title 42, and all of a sudden you couldn't just turn yourself in and ask for protection," he said. "You'd be expelled or at least forced to remain in Mexico. That has created more incentives to, if you're really desperate, to leave to try to avoid apprehension." 

Another indication that the problem has continued to worsen is another statistic that Border Patrol tracks more effectively, the number of migrants rescued along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Border Patrol has recorded 14,278 rescues so far this fiscal year, which began in October. That's more than the total number of rescues they performed last year, with the busy summer months still ahead. 

"The message is still clear — if you are thinking of entering the United States illegally, don’t do it," Border Patrol's Tucson Sector Chief John Modlin said. 

His sector is piloting a program this summer to distribute Heat Stress Kits/Go-Bags to 500 agents at two of its stations responsible for patrolling the central Arizona smuggling corridor north of Sasabe. About 560 human remains have been recovered there since 2000, according to the mortality map from the organization Humane Borders, which uses information from the Pima County medical examiner. 

The kits that border agents carry will contain materials intended to help treat migrants suffering from heat-related illnesses. The sector will compile a feasibility study to determine how to scale the program to other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

"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,” Modlin said. 

Customs and Border Protection will mandate new training annually for all of its employees to better recognize signs of medical distress for migrants they encounter. 

Border Patrol officials from various sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border organized media events this month to highlight the dangers of illegally crossing the border, including extreme temperatures and risky smuggling methods. 

During a June 22 event, Chief Carl Landrum with the Border Patrol's Laredo Sector, which is responsible for patrolling the land corridor up to San Antonio, issued a warning to migrants about trusting smugglers "who have no regard for human life."

"They simply view these people as inventory," he said.

Migrant advocates and activists continue to criticize U.S. border policies, which they argue are responsible for creating the conditions that have led to more migrants to desperation. 

"We demand the Biden administration to immediately cease from using all “prevention and deterrence” policies, including Title 42 — a misguided and cruel policy used to immediately expel people without due process," Vicki Gaubeca, the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said in response to the tragedy in San Antonio.

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As long as those policies restricting access to asylum remain in place, the outlook along the U.S.-Mexico border remains dire. 

“It’s not the first time this happens and it’s not the last time this happens,” Ariel Ruiz Soto said. He is a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. 

Monday's tragedy represents a failure by the U.S. and Mexico to address illegal migration at the southern border that goes back decades, Ruiz Soto said.

The growing use of tractor-trailers to smuggle migrants shows how smuggling organizations adapt to border security changes in order to get more migrants into the U.S.

It also shows the deadly consequences of the methods, and it underscores the need for the U.S., Mexico and other Latin American countries to invest more resources to make it harder for criminal smuggling organizations to profit off illegal migration.

In June, President Joe Biden and officials from Canada and 18 Latin American countries signed a pact called the Los Angeles Declaration to explore ways of expanding legal migration and combating smuggling organizations by targeting their income, bank accounts and other assets.

"I see this as a U.S.-Mexico responsibility first and foremost, but also as a broader conversation for the rest of Latin America,” Ruiz Soto said.

Before restrictions on asylum began to take effect with the rollout of the Remain in Mexico program in 2019, thousands of migrants from all over Latin America had made their way to the border to claim asylum.

That created a bottleneck of migrants forced to wait in Mexican border cities that are often unequipped to help them for prolonged periods of time.

Those cities can be dangerous for migrants, who are vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, and other forms of violence, as well as rough living conditions. That may further push them toward smugglers.

Desperation leads many to take drastic steps, such as jumping the fence, crossing through the desert or river, or getting into the back of a tractor-trailer, as 64 individuals did Monday. 

Levy, an immigration attorney in El Paso, has talked to migrants and asylum seekers in Juárez who have been turned back under Title 42 with fresh injuries from their attempts to cross the border. Those include an eight-year-old who unsuccessfully attempted to climb the fence with his mother.

"He was covered in bloody scratches all over his body from being scraped on the wall as he came down. And that was something I'd never seen before," she said. 

Levy said it has become clear to her that Title 42 is becoming increasingly ineffective to stop those types of incidents from taking place along the U.S.-Mexico border.  

"What we see is that it's not working as a deterrent," she added. "People continue to cross and try and seek asylum, try and get themselves and their families to safety." 

As Monday's tragedy in San Antonio showed, that has become more elusive for more migrants and asylum seekers who instead are finding death. 

Republic reporter Daniel Gonzalez contributed to this article.

Have any news tips or story ideas about immigration in the Southwest? Reach the reporter at rafael.carranza@arizonarepublic.com, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.