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Border Report: 'Threat of death is present' on migrant journey to the United States


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Sometimes they die quickly, plunging 30 feet from the top of the border wall. 

That’s how it was earlier this year when a U.S. Border Patrol agent in San Diego “heard something hit the ground” and turned to see a body at the foot of the border fence a short distance away.

The Mexican man, ten minutes after his jump for freedom, was declared “deceased on the scene” from massive head trauma.

Reports from Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border illustrate the hazards faced by people traveling migration routes to the United States, fleeing the poor neighborhoods in Latin and Central  America that are controlled by criminal gangs emboldened by feeble government enforcement of laws.

Often migrants survive the fence drop, but die later from dislodged bones and bleeding, or wither under the elements of the nightmare delirium of exhaustion and dehydration. They are killed in smuggler’s speeding trucks and vans that roll, flip and eject them, or are struck by vehicles on interstates as they run from the U.S. government agents assigned with the national charge of sending them back to the countries from where they spent their limited fortunes to flee.

“The trail of migration is the trail of death,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “From the very moment that a migrant decides to leave home and take off North, all the way until they reach their destination, the threat of death is present,” he said.

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More than 5,200 migrants have died in the Americas since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration, including 2,191 along the United States-Mexico border. The United States Border Patrol reports that 8,050 migrant deaths have occurred along the Southwest border since 1998, including 274 in the El Paso sector, which includes the state of New Mexico. 

An unfortunate irony casts a shadow over the trek of Central and South American migrants. In their search for protection and freedom — for country — they first must relinquish any notion of inalienable rights, then step knowingly into a journey where they may be abused with impunity.

Pushing into Mexico’s southern border has become more perilous, with videos circulating of the Mexican National Guard and Immigration agents pummeling migrants attempting to enter Mexico, presumably en route to the United States. These clashes with migrants have prompted some to accuse the Lopez Obrador administration — which had promised previously to welcome migrants — of doing the bidding of the United States to curtail the numbers of migrants arriving to the U.S. Southwest border.

At a news conference, Lopez Obrador denied that, saying Mexico was not “pressured by any foreign government, we act in accordance with the principles of our foreign policy.”

North of the dragnet at the southern Mexico border is the terrain of cartels that victimize migrants for violent, sexual, and financial intent. The U.S. Department of State chronicles the range of dangers to migrants in Mexico, and describes the threat:

“Increasingly, organized crime groups — both large and small — participate in trafficking of migrants, who are highly vulnerable to exploitation due to their transient nature, frequent reliance on smugglers, and fear of reporting abuses to authorities,” it stated in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report.

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When the move through Mexico is complete, migrating people must overcome the American border, weary bodies pushing through razor wire, traversing a nearly three-story wall of slick steel, or face the river and its parallel canals, the current and the undertow sucking at their limbs and often dragging them under. 

For those who enter America away from the ports of entry — preferring clandestine freedom over near certain eviction — their journey is still incomplete. An expansive, organized, often invisible fleet of roving Border Patrol agents with lethal weapons and advanced technology track them. Every patrolling agent has the legal authority to immediately cast migrants back to the start of their harrowing travel — authorized to do so under Title 42, the government’s carte blanche response to its border being threatened by COVID-19 and migrants.

Perhaps eviction is the greatest fear among migrants. Even those who can prove that they merit a U.S. immigration hearing must, through the Migrant Protection Protocols, be sent to Mexico to await those hearings, which are often months away. The unswayable bureaucracy of the American immigration and asylum system —  further mired by Title 42 and the MPP “remain in Mexico” policy — is, to the migrant, the mechanisms that place them again within the grasp of abuse and death.

This fear is not unfounded. Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international human rights organization, in a report earlier this year reported “at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico by DHS since President Biden took office” and cited a case where a teenage boy was “found murdered and his body mutilated” after being unable to pay a Mexican gang the “crossing fee” into the United States.

Too often, the story of the “migration crisis” is in the numbers, the policy titles and protocols. But the real crisis is the perpetual threat of death that looms over every step, every encounter, of the migrant’s journey. 

They die in every conceivable way. Not just victims of criminals, or the heat, or the river or the fence. Sometimes they die when swarms of bees attack them, like the migrant in Carrizo Springs, a small border town in Texas. Sometimes they die of fear, the only explanation for a Guatemalan man in custody in Arizona suffering cardiac arrest — at 29 years old.

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And sometimes they die when running. Like the Mexican woman captured by a Laredo Border Patrol agent last month. She was handcuffed with three others, struggling as she was being forced through a barbed wire fence. The woman “slipped her hand from the handcuff and ran” the agent stated in his report. After about 50 feet, she “fell from a 20-foot cliff in the darkness,” smashed her head in the fall, and died near the river’s edge

The U.S. Border Patrol — not without its problems in chronicling migrant deaths— has shown a commitment to the safety of migrants in peril. 

“The men and women at CBP continue to step up to meet the demands of high numbers of encounters at our southern border,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller on Sept. 14.

Since 2019, agents have performed 21,397 rescues along the Southwest border, including 11,406 this year, dramatically higher than the 5,071 last year and 4,920 in 2019.

As immigration numbers continue to rise, with all current barriers to U.S. entry in place, this trend of deaths and rescues will likely continue to escalate as well.

Reyes Mata III is a freelance journalist who writes about the issues of the U.S.-Mexico border. Born and raised in El Paso, he is a graduate of New Mexico State University. His email address is rmataonline@gmail.com. Story ideas are always welcomed.