Hell or high water: Migrant deaths in El Paso canals, Chihuahuan Desert mount

·10 min read

Border-crossing deaths in the El Paso area are mounting, as migrants desperate to reach the U.S. risk dangerous canals and scorching temperatures.

At least 37 migrants have died of injuries, drowning, dehydration and vehicle fatalities crossing into El Paso and southern New Mexico since October 2021, compared with 39 in all of fiscal 2021. Border Patrol in the Big Bend sector east of El Paso has reported an additional 24 deaths in that time period, though that figure does not include bodies recovered by other law enforcement agencies.

Fifteen people suspected to be migrants have drowned in canals along the border or died of water-related injuries, the majority since irrigation season began in early June when the depth of fast-moving water increased sharply. In the rugged landscape surrounding El Paso, climate change is driving up temperatures in the Chihuahuan Desert, where migrants risk deadly dehydration or heat stroke. Five migrants have died of heat exposure in the El Paso Sector since October.

"This is a major human rights crisis at the border," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso.

More: The US built a taller border wall. Migrants are falling, and their injuries are life-altering

Irrigation season brings more than a dozen canal drownings

Irrigation season on the Rio Grande poses a quiet threat. The system of concrete-lined canals that deliver Rio Grande water released from Elephant Butte in New Mexico to farms in Texas is designed to move the water rapidly; inches of water in winter can become 10- to 12-feet deep during the summer.

“The purpose of the canal is to get water as fast as possible to our agriculture community,” Border Patrol Agent Orlando Marrero said.

“At 62 pounds per square foot, the water traveling nine miles per hour will create exactly 302 pounds of force,” said Marrero, a trained emergency medical technician. “Imagine an average person, five-feet-eight or nine, in 10-foot deep water: There is no way. They are going to be swept."

Agents in the sector go through a yearly swift-water training.

“Our El Paso station leadership is fully aware of the dangers,” said Border Patrol El Paso Sector spokeswoman Valeria Morales. “There are chains and rescue ropes along the canal. But sometimes (migrants) are unable to grab onto them or they are too weak to hold on."

More: El Paso County rescue team recovers body in San Elizario canal as border deaths continue

Morales said El Paso Station leaders have discussed ways to prevent drownings in the canals. The El Paso County Irrigation District controls water flow through the canals, which are under the jurisdiction of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).

Irrigation district manager Jesus Reyes said most drowning deaths take place in the American Canal alongside the border fence, which under the Trump administration was built taller, to 30 feet.

“That made it more dangerous,” Reyes said. “Those people are coming over and, in some cases, they climb over and fall directly into the canal.”

“These people are trying to come over to make a better life," he said. "All we can do is try and get the word to these people to not to attempt it.”

IBWC public affairs office Lori Kuczmanski said each year the IBWC and other agencies emphasize the dangers of approaching the canals.

More: Advocates fear migrants deaths on rise in El Paso with canal drownings, I-10 fatalities

Crossing the Chihuahuan Desert is a dangerous gamble

The Chihuahuan Desert surrounding El Paso — extending east into Big Bend country and west across New Mexico — rises and falls over mountainous ridges and offers no respite from heat that can push the human body to its limit. This fiscal year five of the 37 migrant deaths in El Paso sector, which includes 264 miles of borderline in New Mexico and West Texas, have been heat-related. 

Dehydration starts as dry mouth. Dry mouth turns to dry heaving. The veins constrict and muscles begin to cramp up. Or the body will stop sweating and begin seizing, signs of heat stroke.

“The New Mexico region — Lordsburg and Deming — it is remote and mountainous,” Morales said. “It takes hours to days for these groups to reach a highway. It is already harsh terrain and you add triple-digit temperatures to that mix, it’s dangerous.”

Criminal organizations routinely leave behind injured or dehydrated migrants, who then die in the desert, she said.

Two pedestrians killed in early April on Interstate 10 near Sunset Heights may have been undocumented immigrants, but law enforcement has not confirmed their identities.

If Border Patrol leadership believes the person is a migrant, it often will be included in the statistics — but not always. "There have been instances where a person dies in the canal or in the desert and they are not a migrant; they are a local," Morales said.

More: Two pedestrians, driver killed in separate El Paso traffic collisions on Interstate 10

A U.S. Border Patrol officer scans a rural area in New Mexico for tracks on the desert landscape in early January 2022.
A U.S. Border Patrol officer scans a rural area in New Mexico for tracks on the desert landscape in early January 2022.

Climate change multiplies risks in the Big Bend Sector

Arizona's Sonoran Desert, which has even higher temperatures than the Chihuahuan Desert, has claimed migrant lives for decades. But an increase in border crossings in West Texas, and rising temperatures linked to climate change, means more migrants are now being exposed to deadly heat in the Chihuahuan Desert.

East of El Paso, Border Patrol agents in Big Bend Sector patrol 517 miles of U.S.-Mexico borderline demarcated by the Rio Grande. The desert terrain is rugged and the climate extreme, ranging from severe heat in the summer to freezing temperatures in winter. Border Patrol has recorded 24 migrant deaths in Big Bend in the first eight months of fiscal 2022, the same number recorded in all of fiscal 2021.

The total number is likely much higher, the Culberson County sheriff's office alone reported recovering more than 20 bodies in 2021.

Between 2006 and 2021, annual Customs and Border Protection encounters in the remote Big Bend sector did not surpass 10,000. Then during fiscal year 2021, encounters skyrocketed to 37,266. So far in fiscal year 2022, Big Bend has seen 25,573 encounters.

“The real concern for us, as it is for El Paso to our west, is the summertime heat and the unscrupulous actions of the smugglers, the coyotes, who are pushing people through our sector who would not have come through before,” including people who are older or not in good shape, said Greg Davis, spokesman for Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector.

Increased border crossings coincides with record-high temperatures. Temperature records have fallen across Texas this May and June. El Paso's average maximum temperature during May is 88.7 degrees, but this year it was almost five degrees hotter at 93.3 degrees. The weather station at Rio Grande Village in the Big Bend tied the all-time temperature record of 117 degrees on June 8.

In an October 2021 study, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon found that West Texas counties are experiencing faster temperature increases than other parts of the state. Since 1975, average temperatures have increased 0.83 degrees in El Paso County, 0.71 in Culberson County and 0.70 in Hudspeth County.

A study published in the journal Science last year found that risks for migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert will increase as the climate changes. They found that over the next three decades higher temperatures will increase the risk of dehydration and that migrants will have to carry 34% more water to survive.

"In the next 30 years, with rising temperatures, it’s going to become even more extreme and push those levels to even further beyond what humans can actually sustain," Hallie Walker, a University of Idaho researcher and co-author of the study, told The Guardian.

More: State climatologist: El Paso can expect more extreme heat, 100 degree days to double by 2036

Deterrence measures have failed to discourage migrant crossings

Advocates say restrictive immigration policies are pushing people to cross in dangerous areas. For more than two years, the Center for Disease Control's public health order Title 42 has allowed Border Patrol to quickly expel most migrants to Mexico or their countries of origin, blocking many from seeking asylum or other immigration relief. The quick expulsions also preclude prosecution for illegal entry, leading some migrants to try to cross again and again.

U.S. Border Patrol officials have placed rescue beacons throughout West Texas and New Mexico to aid migrants in need due to harsh desert conditions.
U.S. Border Patrol officials have placed rescue beacons throughout West Texas and New Mexico to aid migrants in need due to harsh desert conditions.

Fernando Garcia said since the 1990s, immigration enforcement has funneled migrants to cross in more remote areas. In recent years, he said policies including Title 42, the Migrant Protection Protocols and the 30-foot border fence have made the problem even worse.

"We were very concerned that the number (of deaths) was going to spike dramatically," Garcia said. "And unfortunately, nobody is doing anything."

"We have never seen so many deaths in a short period of time," he said. "The structure of that canal means that whoever falls there does not come out alive."

More: What is Title 42, when does it end, how does it impact US-Mexico border? Here's what to know

Border Patrol has stepped up its efforts to prevent migrants from dying. In El Paso Sector, Border Patrol has installed 17 rescue beacons in areas with significant migrant traffic and limited cellphone service. The towers are topped with a strobe light and a flag with the emergency cross; when a migrant pushes the help call button, the tower transmits a precise location for Border Patrol to dispatch agents to the rescue.

There were 165 rescue beacons deployed across the Southwest Border in January, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The agency has also installed more than 2,500 placards with geographic coordinates that migrants can provide to 911 rescuers.

Garcia said these preventative measures will fall short without change to immigration policy.

"This is not only about posting signs, this is about the whole policy that does not allow migrants and asylum seekers to come to the United States legally," he said. "We need to fundamentally change this policy of deterrence at the border to alleviate the pressure of migrants going into these dangerous places."

911 placards were placed throughout the El Paso sector. Placards provide a location number that can be provided to 911 and then relayed to the agents. The sector currently has 520 deployed, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
911 placards were placed throughout the El Paso sector. Placards provide a location number that can be provided to 911 and then relayed to the agents. The sector currently has 520 deployed, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Official reports undercount border deaths

The true number of migrants dying in attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border is difficult to pin down. Border Patrol does not recover the bodies of all the people who perish in their attempts to cross, as local law enforcement agencies are often the first responders.

In a directive accompanying the 2020 appropriation to the Department of Homeland Security, a congressional committee required Border Patrol to report data on migrant deaths, create plans to reduce migrant deaths and coordinate with other agencies, such as local medical examiner offices. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in April found Border Patrol fell short on the directive.

“Border Patrol has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths, or disclosed associated data limitations,” the GAO found.

Human rights organizations create their own tallies of migrant deaths in the absence of complete official data.

The United Nations' International Organization for Migration, or IOM, documented at least 650 deaths of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between January and December 2021, more than in any other year since they began documenting deaths in 2014.

In the report, Michele Klein-Solomon, IOM regional director for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, said saving lives should be a top priority for the region.

"Families in search of the truth about missing migrant relatives need answers," she said, "and policymakers need better data to ensure migration is safe and dignified for all.”

More: 'They run out of water and they die': More migrants risk entering US during dangerous summer months

Reporting contributed by Daniel Borunda.

Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at mpskowski@elpasotimes.com and @psskow on Twitter.

 Lauren Villagran can be reached at lvillagran@elpasotimes.com.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: MIgrant drownings, dehydration deaths mount on US-Mexico border