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The increasingly deadly Imperial County for US-Mexico border commuters

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“Desconocido/a.”

The engraving of a heart-shaped plaque affixed to a yellow wooden cross stands out against the landscape of rocky hills and shrubs. There are half a dozen across the California border regions.

James Cordero, who leads a group of volunteers to stock water, food and other supplies along the migrant corridors, plants the crosses to mark where someone died in the vast desert expanse .

“People will be unknown or forgotten, but we can honor them.”

Every year, the remains of migrants who succumbed to the environment while attempting to enter the United States are recovered at the California border. Border Patrol agents or aid workers come across the bodies, sometimes days or weeks after the death.

These deaths have long been a part of life in the region, but recent data shows that the Imperial County wilderness has become increasingly deadly in recent years.

Since 2018, at least 50 migrants have died in Imperial County while trying to cross the border, according to Border Patrol data. More migrants died from 2018 to 2020 – the agency’s latest available data – than in the previous six years combined.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, say immigration advocates and researchers. Incomplete Border Patrol reports and a high number of people missing but never found mean the death toll could be much higher.

Federal immigration enforcement has long led migrants into risky terrain along the southwest border through a policy known as “prevention through deterrence.” The idea is to discourage illegal entry into the United States by strengthening law enforcement in more urban areas, leaving remote and dangerous border regions as the only remaining corridors of passage.

But opponents say the policy didn’t stop people from crossing – it only made it deadlier.

“There’s nothing we can do with the US-Mexico border to slow the flow of these incredibly desperate people,” said Jason De León, a UCLA anthropologist who studies Latin American migration. “They will keep coming. They will continue to die as long as this policy is in place.

James Cordero of Border Kindness leads a group in the Jacumba Wilderness at sunrise to make water drops and other supplies for migrants, August 13, 2022.

Increasing border enforcement, climate change and changing migration patterns could lead to even more deaths along the southern California border. Customs and Border Protection have taken steps to reduce deaths, but researchers including De León are skeptical.

“This problem isn’t going away anytime soon,” said De León, author of “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail,” an anthropological analysis of exposure deaths among migrants in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.

“And we see it happening, getting worse the more we watch it.”

Migrant deaths on the rise

The 71 miles along Imperial County’s southern border was once the deadliest region for migrants attempting to cross into the United States between ports of entry, according to data collected by Border Patrol.

In 2001, nearly 100 migrants died in the El Centro sector – the border patrol area covering Imperial County – the most of any sector along the southwest border.

Over the next 20 years, that number dropped dramatically, along with Title 8 apprehensions — cases where Border Patrol finds someone suspected of being in the United States without clearance.

Two decades of data on migrant deaths and apprehensions analyzed by new source indicates that when more people attempt to cross into the El Centro sector, more of them die.

California, once a main passage corridor according to De León, now experiences far fewer apprehensions than other areas along the border such as Yuma and the Rio Grande Valley. But that could change.

“People are constantly finding new holes,” De León said. “Now you see a movement back to California.”

And if the pattern of 20 years of data holds true, that could mean more deaths.

Between 2018 and 2020, migrant deaths along the border in the El Centro sector jumped from previous years.

The Mexican consulate in Calexico, which keeps records of the deaths of its citizens in the United States, also followed an upward trend in exposure deaths along the Imperial County border strip around the same time.

In 2021, the consulate reported 14 exposure deaths among its citizens and five so far this year.

Customs and Border Protection, which houses Border Patrol, did not provide a sectoral breakdown of migrant deaths for fiscal year 2021, which begins in October, or 2022 to date. But the agency reported 151 migrant deaths across the border for 2021.

The San Diego area has also seen an uptick in deaths recently. The Border Patrol reported 13 deaths in the region in 2020, while the previous eight years saw deaths in the lower double digits.

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Members of the Border Kindess group drop off water and other supplies for migrants in the Jacumba Wilderness, August 13, 2022.

Yet records kept by government agencies could obscure the true death toll.

The death toll does not include hundreds of people missing along the US-Mexico border this year alone, according to data from the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project.

The project has reported 283 dead or missing migrants along the border so far in 2022.

Border Patrol Response

Immigration advocates have also long suspected that official tallies by government agencies downplay the deadly reality of crossing borders. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office confirmed these suspicions last April.

In data reported from 2015 to 2019, Customs and Border Protection omitted some deaths discovered by outside entities, such as local law enforcement, according to the GAO report.

Customs and Border Protection is required to report the number of migrant deaths along the border both by a congressional directive that accompanied the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill of 2020 and by a federal law called the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act.

This law also requires the agency to deploy rescue beacons to reduce fatalities in the southwestern border region. The El Centro sector has 14 rescue beacons and warning signs across particularly dangerous crossing points, according to agency spokespersons.

So far this year, Border Patrol has conducted 353 search and rescue missions in the area.

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A member of the Border Kindess group writes about a gallon of water that will be left for migrants attempting to cross into the United States via the Jacumba Wilderness, August 13, 2022.

In response to the report’s findings, Border Patrol agreed to include all deaths along the border in future reports. But data from previous years remains incomplete, making it difficult for the public, researchers and lawmakers to understand how border enforcement and policy are proceeding.

“Documenting the number of bodies, the number of people who died during this process is important so that we can have some accountability,” De León said.

Immigration advocates and researchers have long criticized the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy, saying it was responsible for the deaths of thousands of migrants who died or disappeared in the desert after attempted to enter the United States.

The strategy is designed to increase the likelihood of apprehension on traditional smuggling routes and force migrants into “more hostile terrain, less suitable for passage and more suitable for repression”, according to internal documents from 1994.

The increased use of surveillance technologies such as drones and remote cameras is pushing migrants into more difficult terrain to avoid detection.

The environment itself, De León said, is used as an enforcement tool against migrants. And rising temperatures due to climate change could make them even more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

By 2050, Imperial County is expected to experience about 26 extreme heat days per year – when the temperature exceeds 1% of the region’s hottest temperatures historically, according to the National Integrated Heat Health Information System, a database of federal data measuring the impacts of global warming.

At that time, most days of the year should be above 90 degrees.

Aid groups struggle to meet needs

The signs of human travel are unmistakable in the desert: footprints in the sandy gravel, a dust-covered water bottle, food wrappers, a cell phone, a single shoe.

Cordero and Jacqueline Arellano, who run water drops in the desert with a nonprofit called Border Kindness, have a system for tracking where migrants cross the desert. In recent years, they have noticed that the movements of migrants adapt to border control strategies.

High traffic areas have scattered across the desert. The group expanded its drop sites further north and east, and the need for vital supplies surged.

Death data between 2015 and 2021 provided by the Imperial County Sheriff, who also serves as coroner, showed people died in the county’s ‘open desert’ as far north as Desert Shores on the Salton Sea and as far east as Winterhaven on the California-Arizona border.

Data from Imperial County may not provide a complete picture of how often migrants died in the desert there. Officials say they don’t track migrant deaths, specifically, and the county’s numbers are lower than what the Border Patrol tracked.

“We literally can’t keep enough water there,” Arellano said. “Consumption is higher than we’ve ever seen.”

Over the past two years, the couple have worked harder than ever, leading volunteer groups that start before dawn from March to November and then return home to care for their one-year-old child.

They say they walk through triple-degree heat with backpacks filled to the brim with jugs of water and canned food, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, because Arellano knows the consequences if they don’t surrender. not in the desert.

“It could cost someone their life.”