Migrant deaths rising in summer surge, rescues by border agents soaring


When Border Patrol agents stopped a Honda driving suspiciously near the California-Mexico boundary on Saturday and ordered everyone out of the car, one woman didn’t get out. She couldn’t.

Others in the car told agents they had walked five hours through the desert’s midday heat without water until they were finally picked up. Once in the car, the woman had been going in and out of consciousness. She was airlifted to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.

In Texas, agents were pulling bodies out of rivers, ponds and lakes all last week — and would have pulled out even more fatalities, but for some heroic water rescues.

In Arizona it was the heat, as authorities recovered more bodies from the rugged terrain.

Across the southwestern border, agents also are reporting a disheartening number of people who have been thrown or ejected from vehicles as smugglers try to evade capture, often with the migrants themselves pleading for the drivers to stop.

Far from cooling off, as the White House had predicted earlier this year, the border is becoming even more chaotic, with numbers of illegal immigrant juveniles once again rising and smugglers growing bolder about trying innovative methods to avoid agents. The agents are encountering resistance, including a growing tendency for smugglers to flash weapons.

April and May saw the highest levels of illegal migration encounters in more than 20 years. Although the June numbers aren’t complete, one yardstick — the number of unaccompanied juvenile migrants — is ticking back up after a lull.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the chaos and death is a simple matter of numbers. Smugglers have enticed more people to come under President Biden, so more people are dying.

“Nobody should be surprised that this is happening,” said Mr. Judd, a longtime agent. “This is exactly what has always happened when you have the number of people crossing the border we’re seeing today. This administration, based on history, should have known that this was what they were going to create when they brought back the catch-and-release program encouraging so many people to cross our borders illegally.”

As of May, eight months into the fiscal year, the Border Patrol had tallied 203 deaths of migrants along the border, and that’s before the summer months, when the heat sends mortality rates soaring. In fiscal year 2020, the Border Patrol tallied a total of 250 migrant deaths.

Already this year, three of the nine southwest border sectors have surpassed the totals in deaths for all of 2020.

“CBP’s message for anyone who is thinking of entering the United States illegally along the Southern border is simple: don’t do it,” the border agency said in a statement. “When migrants cross the border illegally, they put their lives in peril. The terrain along the border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert migrants must hike after crossing the border in many areas are unforgiving.”

Customs and Border Protection did not address a question about how much blame lies with the Biden administration’s policy changes.

Whatever the culpability, the grim reality of death is a near-daily occurrence for those along the border, where smugglers and even fellow migrants are all too ready to abandon someone who can’t keep up in the desert, or leave them to drown if they struggle crossing the Rio Grande.

Agents over the weekend nabbed a group of migrants in Brownsville, Texas, who reported they’d left a woman behind after she fell off the border wall, injuring her leg. Agents managed to find the 39-year-old Mexican woman in dense brush near a border park, stabilized her on a medical backboard and got her to a hospital.

In Arizona, a group of migrants got into a fight with their smuggling guide who kept pushing them in mid-June heat, leaving one man shaking and delirious.

“You don’t have balls or what? You are walking like a child! Why did you come if you couldn’t handle it?” the guide berated the man, according to a Border Patrol account of the interaction.

Elsewhere in Arizona, agents were tracking a sedan on June 11 when they saw its back door open and two migrants flung out. One was dragged for a brief moment before rolling free. The migrants later told agents that the driver had ordered them out, but refused to slow down more.

In Laredo last week, agents spotted people jumping into a white pickup, then speeding away, sending people spilling out of the truck. Agents lost track of the vehicle, but learned it soon crashed, leaving two occupants dead at the scene, and a third who succumbed at a hospital in San Antonio.

Agents in southeastern Arizona, meanwhile, found a man suffering from heat exposure last week. They stabilized him and an ambulance took him to a local hospital, then to Tucson, but he died Thursday.

The border-wide death toll would be much higher, but for some individual heroics.

One agent last week spotted a young Guatemalan boy struggling to stay afloat in a pond near the Rio Grande in Penitas, Texas. The agent tied a rope around his waist and splashed into the water to rescue the boy. Both needed medical help, but the boy survived.

Agents in Eagle Pass, Texas, were tracking a group of illegal immigrants last week when they heard yelling. They followed the noise and discovered several migrants drowning in a man-made lake.

Agents rushed into the water, rescuing one man but finding another man, from Guatemala, unresponsive. They performed CPR for 32 minutes but the man could not be revived.

A surviving migrant said another man was missing, and agents went back into the water to recover the body of a second Guatemalan man.

All told, CBP has tallied about 7,000 rescues so far this fiscal year, which is already 35% more than all of 2020.

“Even though we’re facing an unprecedented situation where we don’t have the support of the administration or even DHS, our agents are putting on their uniform, going out and doing their jobs beyond what could possibly be expected of them,” Mr. Judd said.

Even when they can’t save someone, making an identification can be hard — but important for families.

Agents were tracking a group of three illegal immigrants in Yuma on June 13 when they found the corpse of a woman under a tree. She had a Mexican ID card with her, but the Mexican consulate said it was bogus.

Consular officials called a phone number found among the woman’s belongings, and connected it to the family of a 23-year-old Guatemalan woman. A Border Patrol agent then searched agency arrest records and found the woman in their files, including fingerprints that matched the body.

It turned out the woman had been caught jumping the border on June 9, and again on June 11. Her final attempt two days later ended in death.

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