Reports of migrants dying and disappearing in the US-Mexico borderlands are becoming increasingly common, propelled in part by a restrictive border policy pushing people to cross through more remote and treacherous routes.
Since the global coronavirus pandemic took hold in March 2020, more than 250 migrants have reportedly disappeared while trying to cross the US-Mexico border, according to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which helps locate and identify the remains of migrants found in the borderlands. In years past, the group received about 150 such reports annually.
The uptick comes as President Joe Biden maintains a Trump-era rule known as Title 42, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put in place as a public health measure at the start of the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It gives border officials broad authority to expel recently detained migrants during the pandemic.
In connection with that order, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on July 21 that border restrictions with Canada and Mexico are to remain in place for another month amid a surge in cases from the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Under Title 42, border agents have expelled more than 973,000 people between March last year and June 2021. Many are Central American migrants who have come to the United States in recent years to escape the effects of climate change, poverty and violence, among other factors. Adults from Mexico are also increasingly crossing the border.
Policies like Title 42 have suspended asylum and “made clandestine border crossing the only feasible option for entry to the United States,” which appears to have funneled individuals “who might otherwise have lawfully petitioned for asylum into remote and dangerous desert areas,” according to an April 2021 report analyzing undocumented migrant deaths from the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute.
Human rights groups have called the policy “illegal and discriminatory,” effectively denying asylum seekers their legal right under international humanitarian law to make their case for asylum. Some exceptions have been made to Title 42, such as unaccompanied children who reach the border and some family units until recently.
In a letter to the Biden administration, human rights groups have also pointed to the “escalating dangers faced by asylum seekers and migrants subjected to the Title 42 policy."
In June alone, for example, the non-profit group Humane Borders discovered the remains of 43 migrants in southern Arizona. More than two-thirds of the people who died had been found less than a week from the time of their deaths. The other bodies had been there longer.
The group found the remains of 227 migrants in 2020, making it the deadliest year they had ever recorded for irregular border crossings into Arizona. Deaths of migrants driven into more isolated crossings are also sparking concern in Texas. The majority of deaths recorded on the border in recent years are of people from Latin America and the Caribbean, according to data from the International Organization of Migration's (IOM) Missing Migrants Project.
Expulsions under Title 42 are likely contributing to the rise in repeated crossings. Officials with US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) said recently they are seeing slightly fewer new encounters with migrants on the southern border compared to last year and a noticeable increase in the number of people who have made more than one attempt to cross.
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Border restrictions like Title 42 have done little to deter migrants from coming to the United States and have often resulted in putting them in more danger while increasing the profits of Mexico’s organized crime groups.
“It’s been a boon for criminal groups,” said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert and vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think tank. “With so many migrants turned back and forced to wait in Mexico, there’s a high number of vulnerable people easily subjected to extortion, kidnapping and sexual assault.”
While it’s hard to draw a straight line between the uptick in deaths and disappearances along the border and Title 42, Meyer said the US government’s restrictive policies have closed the options available for migrants to legally enter the country, pushing them into the hands of smugglers and forcing them to travel in remote stretches of harsh terrain.
“Migrants are dying in the desert because policy has pushed them toward these places purposely,” said Jason De León, executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.
The expulsion policy also means that the few resources available for migrants in Mexico are being overwhelmed. Meyer said that migrants rely heavily on shelters run by non-governmental and religious organizations for safety, clothing, guidance, food and occasional legal aid. But many shelters are stretched thin and receive little to no support from the Mexican government.
In the border city of Reynosa, for example, Mayor Maki Ortiz announced July 22 that hundreds of vulnerable migrants staying at the Senda de Vida shelter - one of the only safe places available to them - would be evicted due to the shelter’s unauthorized construction in a “high risk” area along the banks of the Rio Grande, the river that separates Mexico from the state of Texas.
However, many came out in support of the shelter after having been operational for more than a decade. Some local attorneys fought back against the ruling, and a Mexican federal court temporarily halted the shelter's closing days later.
Still, the mayor criticized the United States for not resolving its migration situation, saying that cities like Reynosa don’t have the resources to support those sent back to Mexico.
Just days before the eviction notice to the shelter was sent, an anti-kidnapping unit operating out of the Tamaulipas State Prosecutor’s Office rescued 55 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that had been packed into a Reynosa safe house.
Whether kidnapped by preying criminal groups before crossing or left to die by deceptive smugglers in record-setting heat, policies that aim to prevent migration through deterrence, such as Title 42, have only exacerbated the risks migrants face while increasing recidivism.
“No [US] president in the last three cycles has ever said the term ‘prevention through deterrence’ in public despite this being the current security paradigm, and it’s killing people,” said De León.