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Migrant deaths soar at US border in 2022
September 26,2022   By:China Daily Global
Sept. 26, 2022 -- For Dr Corrine Stern, the medical examiner of Webb County near the Texas-Mexico border, 2022 has become the deadliest year for migrant deaths on record.
"I'm seeing an extreme increase in the number of border crossing deaths compared to other years," she told CNN in late August. "This is my busiest year in my career ever."
Stern has 20 years of working experience and serves 11 counties. She has seen more than 200 migrant deaths this year.
Besides determining cause of death, Stern's job also requires her to identify the bodies and notify next of kin. That often take a long time.
The increase in deaths and the lengthy process in identifying the deceased has created a problem she had never faced before: With 260 migrant bodies in her custody in five coolers, she has run out of space, reported CNN.
Stern must solicit help from local funeral homes. One funeral home in her jurisdiction, Memorial Funeral Chapels in Eagle Pass, told CNN it is at capacity, too.
As a result, the funeral home must start burying unidentified migrants at the Maverick County Cemetery. More than a dozen unidentified migrant bodies were recently buried in haste.
What Stern said haunts her the most is the rising number of child migrant deaths. Stern told CNN that so far this year she has identified six minor deaths, ages from 1 to 17.
The youngest migrant victims were a pair of twins still inside the womb of a Haitian pregnant woman who drowned.
"That's not just a mom drowning. That's mom and her two kids drowning," Stern said.
Many migrant bodies will remain unidentified. However, one medical examiner's office has made a great effort to identify them to give the deceased the proper dignity.
In Pima County, Arizona, where Tucson is located, the office of the medical examiner began to coordinate its response to migrant deaths in May 2002 when 14 migrants died in the desert southeast of Yuma, reported The Guardian. They remain unidentified.
Since then, the office has classified 3,600 deaths in its electronic records system as "unidentified border crossers", according to forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson.
Of those, about 66 percent were identified so far, a much higher rate than that in Texas or California, where population and resources are less.
In July, the Pima County Board of Supervisors allocated $24 million in next year's budget for a bigger and more modern office of medical examiner. The money will help with space issues and identification of bodies or bones brought to the facility.
Anderson told The Guardian that he used to think that when the migrant deaths reached a certain number, they would stop.
"When the numbers hit 1,000, they'll get Washington's attention, and they'll stop it," he said. Now he said he is convinced that no number of deaths would be high enough to attract Washington's attention.
While GOP-lead states are busing and flying migrants to Democratic leaders' residences and Democratic-leaning cities, no migrant policy is being discussed to address the border crossing surge — more than 2 million migrants were apprehended in fiscal year 2022 — and mounting deaths.
Stern's personal observation is backed by the data. With a week left in fiscal year 2022, the number of migrant deaths inside the US border has reached 748, far exceeding the previous record of 566 deaths in 2021, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The deadliest incident occurred when 53 migrants were found dead in and around an airless tractor-trailer near San Antonio, Texas, on June 27.
Texas has proved to be the busiest section for border crossing, and consequently, for the most migrant deaths.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) divides the US-Mexico border into nine sectors. The sector with the most reported deaths is the easternmost one, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, according to a July analysis by the Washington Examiner.
It reported that as of July this year, 173 remains were found in the Rio Grande Valley sector. The Del Rio sector, also in Texas, followed with 154 bodies: there were 72 in Tucson, and 64 in Laredo, Texas.
In a recent incident, CBP and Mexican officials pulled eight bodies out of the torrents of the Rio Grande River on Sept 1 after heavy rainfall. Another 37 migrants were rescued from the river by CBP.
Most migrants died painful deaths, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a Washington-based research and advocacy organization for human rights in the Americas.
Dehydration, heat exhaustion, or exposure at night in deserts and dry brushland appear to be the most common causes. An increasing number are drowning in the Rio Grande, irrigation canals, and other bodies of water. An increasing number are killed, or badly injured, trying to climb segments of 30-foot-high border wall installed during the Trump administration, analysis by WOLA showed.
Joseph Nevins, a professor at Vassar College, New York, and a member of the editorial committee of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), recently discussed the border crossing danger in an article published in The Conversation.
Nevins wrote that a border crossing deterrence policy begun under the Clinton administration ended up pushing migrants "to more remote, and more lethal, travel routes beyond the zones of detection".
Under the policy, the US Border Patrol has grown from roughly 4,200 in 1994 to more than 20,000 today. About 80 to 90 percent of them are stationed at the US-Mexico border.
"In 1994, the Border Patrol's budget was $400 million. In 2021, it was $4.9 billion — an approximately 700 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars in less than 30 years," Nevins wrote.
Nevins pointed out that the official death tolls are likely severely undercounted.
"They are based on bodies or human remains that are retrieved. But many corpses are never recovered because of the region's arduous terrain and enormous size: The US-Mexico boundary is about 2,000 miles long," Nevins wrote.
The deterrence policy has forced the migrants to rely on smugglers to get to the US. The CBP even included among its "indicators of success" higher fees charged by smugglers and increasingly sophisticated smuggling methods.
"In other words, the US authorities anticipated growth in the very industry they now decry. Consequently, deaths remain a way of life in the borderlands," Nevins wrote.
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