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Migrant deaths expected to rise during summer

The Rio Grande in Sunland Park is filled with water released from Elephant Butte for irrigation this time of year. A few months ago, the riverbed was nearly dry; now migrants crossing the river downstream are encountering deep water and strong currents.(Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SUNLAND PARK – June has been a deadly month for migrants trying to cross the border in the El Paso area, with seven bodies recovered near waterways, compared with a total of four last year.

“There’s been deaths along the canals. There’s been deaths along the river,” said Ramiro Cordero, special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol in the region that includes El Paso and all of southern New Mexico.

The seven bodies recovered in El Paso County waterways near the border this month include those of five men, one woman and a “preschool-aged” girl. Authorities are working to confirm their identities but suspect all but one are migrants.

As summer begins, migrants are encountering dangerous rising water and soaring temperatures in New Mexico and elsewhere along the border. And the death toll this year is expected to top the 283 deaths reported by Border Patrol during fiscal year 2018, which ran from October 2017 through September 30, 2018.

The release of irrigation water from Elephant Butte Reservoir into canals has proven to be especially deadly for unsuspecting migrants in far West Texas and southern New Mexico. “The water turns and it runs anywhere from 35-45 miles per hour and they’re just dangerous. They’re coming over here with that American dream, and they might not get to that dream,” Cordero said.

The sign, which reads “Many people have died trying to swim to the other side,” is posted in a church sheltering Central American migrants in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on June 13. The irrigation canals near El Paso look calm on the surface and easy to cross, but their V-shape creates a quick undertow. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Migrants who arrived before irrigation season in southern New Mexico, which began at the end of May this year, encountered a nearly dry riverbed in the Mesilla Valley or a small trickle in the El Paso area near the state line. But in the summer the Rio Grande lives up to its name.

“They don’t know anything about what they’re going to encounter at the border never mind having to worry about water from Elephant Butte,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute. The nonprofit, faith-based organization advocates for migrants in the borderland region that includes El Paso, Las Cruces and Ciudad Juárez.

The organization tried to warn migrants at shelters in Juárez and by posting signs about the rising water and other dangers at the border.

“This year we’re particularly concerned we’re going to see an increase in migrant deaths,” Corbett said.

He is also worried that the increased presence of Mexican federal police and military, including the country’s newly created national guard, on the border will push migrants to cross into the U.S. in more remote areas.

“It’s exposing them to precarious conditions either way by driving them out to dangerous, more remote places,” Corbett said.

The Border Patrol blames smuggling organizations for putting profits ahead of lives as they take migrants through risky routes. On Wednesday, Border Patrol agents from the Deming station rescued five men who were lost without food or water.

“After an exhaustive and strenuous search, agents found the group in the middle of the Cedar Mountains, southwest of Deming. This particular area is very mountainous and still very far from any major roads or cities,” according to a statement from Border Patrol.

The Mexican Consulate contacted Border Patrol for help after learning about the lost group and was able to pass along a general description of the location. The men were screened medically and did not need treatment. They face charges for illegal entry.

“That was a rescue, but it could have been a recovery,” Cordero said.

On Sunday, Border Patrol agents working in South Texas discovered the bodies of a young woman and three young children in the Rio Grande Valley near Brownsville. The bodies near the river included a 20-year-old woman, a toddler and two infants, according to the sheriff of Hidalgo County in Texas.

Along another stretch of border in Arizona, Border Patrol agents recovered the body of a 7-year-old girl from India on June 12. The child was with her mother and 8-year-old sister when they were separated from a group of migrants smugglers told to cross in the “dangerous and austere location,” according to Border Patrol in the Tucson sector. The temperature in the rugged desert area was 108 degrees the day the girl’s body was discovered. Agents later located the child’s mother and sister and transported them to a local hospital for treatment for dehydration.

“Our sympathies are with this little girl and her family,” said Tucson Chief Patrol Agent Roy Villareal in a statement released after the child’s death.

“This is a senseless death driven by cartels who are profiting from putting lives at risk,” Villareal said.

In Arizona, volunteers with the group No More Deaths hike trails and leave water, food and other basic necessities in remote areas of the desert to help migrants facing dangerously harsh conditions. Scott Warren, a volunteer for the organization faced criminal prosecution for transporting and harboring undocumented immigrants after helping two men who arrived at the group’s shelter used as a staging area for distributing supplies. The trial ended in a hung jury June 11.

Border Patrol agents often serve as first responders for migrants in distress in the desert, mountains or waterways. But the surge in migrant families and children arriving at the border also means many agents are busy processing thousands of asylum-seekers and may not be available to respond to an emergency in the field if a migrant or someone else needs help.

“It was the cries for help that those agents would hear and take action. Right now there are no agents on the river levee because they’re busy doing other duties,” Cordero said. “If they go in the canal, nobody is going to hear those cries,” he said.