New Mexico sat on the bleeding edge of the heat dome that caused soaring temperatures in Mexico and Texas last week, and pushed temperatures into the triple-digits for much of the southern portion of the state.
Heat is the deadliest natural disaster event – killing an average 700 people in the United States each year – more than deaths from tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding. However federal agencies tracking the data say that’s certainly an undercount.
In one aspect though, this summer is shaping up to be the deadliest on record for people trying to cross the desert in between Sunland Park and Santa Teresa, New Mexico.
The rough terrain of Mount Cristo Rey interrupts the border wall which then continues west on flatter ground. “Coyotes” and smugglers frequently send migrants over the mountain or over the wall into the desert, where the heat presents a potentially deadly risk during the summer months. (Photo by Corrie Boudreaux for Source NM)
In 2022, 16 people crossing the border died in Sunland Park, the most deaths recorded for that area by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. That number combined deaths from falls from the border fence – which ranges from 18 to 30 feet tall – and heat exposure.
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In just May and June this year, that number is already at 13 – all with heat as a contributing factor, said Sunland Park Fire Chief Danny Moreno.
Real-time data for deaths caused by heat or heat-related illness is hard to come by. For example, the Heat and Health tracker released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, groups heat illness statistics by regions, so data for New Mexico includes Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma – comparing large regions with very different climates and demographics.
Statewide, the deaths are only viewed in hindsight, as the New Mexico Department of Health pulls data from death certificates or calls to hospitals for emergency room visits.
Heatwaves earlier in the year are more dangerous, since people need about 10 days to acclimate to temperature changes, said Stephanie Moraga-McHaley, who manages the environmental health program at the state health department. But an internal temperature of 103 degrees and above puts people at more risk for heat-related illness.
The cumulative impact of heat can worsen pre-existing health conditions like heart troubles, Moraga-McHaley said, complicating the department’s ability to count how many people are impacted. It’s hard to tell if someone died from a heart attack brought on by heat stress versus other factors.
“With cold-related illness, the biomarkers are a lot easier to detect,” she said. “But with heat related illness, it’s not as easy to determine.”
Moreno said in interviews with survivors, who are often the people who call 911 for help, that people can be lost for upwards of six hours, not acclimated to the elevation and heat, and don’t know that the distances in the desert can be deceiving.
He said the Sunland Fire Department isn’t encouraging crossing illegally, but said if people do, to take precautions about drinking water and avoid the brunt of heat during the day.
“Migrants crossing over into the United States, they’re doing it because they’re looking for a better life,” Moreno said. “But it doesn’t do you any good if you die a mile away from the border wall because of dehydration or heat.”
A grim statistic continues rising
Across the El Paso region, which includes the entirety of New Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials said there’s been 55 deaths related to border crossings. Last year, 71 people died, Border Patrol said.
In recent years, the number of deaths of people crossing has risen dramatically, with Border Patrol reporting 40 deaths in 2021.
The method for investigating and counting deaths encounters a patchwork system of local and federal agencies, as the body always has to go through a county investigation before being returned to the Border Patrol.
“We have to notify the locals. Once they investigate, and they make the determination, then that’s where we come in again, into the picture,” said Sean Coffey, a Border Patrol agent, in a press conference last week.
What’s being done to prevent crossing deaths?
Border Patrol says it partners with the Foreign Operations Branch in Mexico and uses social media to warn people about the dangers of crossing.
Offering services to vulnerable people is the first place to start, said James Yong, head of the Ciudad Juárez for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
The UN office opened in Juárez in 2019, and operates about 3,000 shelter beds in the city for refugees. The office also coordinates clothes, food, legal aid, psychiatric help, schooling supplies and help to find jobs and navigate the complex systems of seeking asylum.
Yong said the process now of allowing people to seek asylum – while not perfect, allows some people access by receiving one of the 1,000 daily CBP One to get appointments to surrender to Border Patrol at ports of entry.
Title 42, a measure enacted in the pandemic denied entry to most people seeking asylum. Now, with the order lifted in May, border authorities returned to Title 8, which restarts the legal process to remove or deport migrants who cross the border into the United States.
James Yong, head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees’ field office in Ciudad Juárez, speaks on his organization’s mission to protect refugees during their transit, application and integration into new countries. Unfortunately, Yong said, many migrants fall outside the formal refugeee system and are thus exposed to more dangerous routes as they cross the border into the United States. (Photo by Corrie Boudreaux for Source NM)
Steep consequences accompany the process, including a five-year ban on reentry after expulsion, and possible criminal prosecution for repeated attempts.
For people with one deportation on their records, crossing illegally may be the only choice.
The asylum system is one of the only ways to enter the U.S. immigration system, with decades-long backlogs to family reunification and other methods to enter, he said.
“The more alternative pathways for people that aren’t asylum seekers, people that aren’t refugees – if you’re just going for temporary work, if you’re going to reunite with your family – if these options exist, and that will take the pressure off the asylum system,” Yong said.
Juan Fierro Garica, head pastor at the Templo El Buen Pastor, told Source NM.
He runs a shelter in the United Methodist Church, which usually holds about 75 people, mostly families of refugees, but has fewer now that CBP One appointments opened up.
Juan Fierro, director of the Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, reviews the records of migrants who have come and gone from his care, Monday, June 26. Fierro encourages the migrants who stay with him to have patience in waiting out the legal processes for entering the United States because, he said, many migrants who attempt to cross illegally into the desert near Sunland Park face dangers from the natural environment as well as indebtedness to criminal smugglers. (Photo by Corrie Boudreaux for Source NM)
There are many reasons why people cross illegally, he said, including having a prior deportation or criminal record in their country. Others had no access to a phone and lost patience. Still some people were separated during the CBP One interview process, and are trying to reunite with family members.
The price of trafficking often outstrips years of pay for people and their families.
“They don’t realize how much debt this puts them in,” he said.
He said the improvements to CBP One appointments mean that people seeking asylum in the shelter are receiving appointments between 15 days and three months after they sign up.
“If you have patience, if you have patience to wait for an appointment, you can have a better life,” Fierro Garcia said. “Your kids can be in school and you can access a health service and a job, while you wait.”
Corrie Boudreaux contributed to the reporting of this article