HomeUs NewsThe Other Death Valley: Hundreds of Migrants Die in Remote Texas Deserts | US immigration
The Other Death Valley: Hundreds of Migrants Die in Remote Texas Deserts | US immigration
August 19, 2022
Eddie Canales can’t forget the moment he saw the decomposed body of a young man in his twenties hanging from an oak tree on a farm in South Texas last September.
The intense heat and humidity in this barren undergrowth had quickly rotted its flesh and exposed much of the skeleton, which had been in place for at least a week.
Clearly visible in a graphic the sheriff’s office gave the Guardian was the skull, which drooped to one side. And both his feet are missing, probably eaten by wild animals.
The man came from Mexico, according to identity papers found. Police investigated the possibility that it was a lynching, but concluded that it was suicide.
“Most of the bodies I’ve come across have already been skeletonized,” said Canales, who runs the South Texas Human Rights Center, a nonprofit in Brooks County, Texas, that works to end preventable high-profile deaths and deaths. to reunite families. with the remains of loved ones.
“But this was particularly harrowing. That image will always stay with me,” he added.
Brooks County spans nearly 1,000 square miles of sparse, bush-covered, sandy ranch lands not far from the eastern end of the US-Mexico border and is at the heart of a deadly migration crisis in which desperate people are dying in record numbers.
So high is the stark toll that the surrounding region, which spans several Texas counties near the Rio Grande, has been called the other Death Valley.
Data confirms that awful moniker: The Missing Migrants Project, an initiative of the Swiss-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) that tracks the deaths and disappearances of migrants worldwide, recorded 715 deaths of people trying to cross the U.S. border from Mexico in 2021. crossing – more than double the number in 2015, making it the deadliest land crossing in the world.
Of the four U.S. states along the border, Texas has the longest trajectory and highest migrant death rate, according to a report from the University of Texas Strauss Center. Brooks County, where authorities recovered 119 bodies last year, has seen more deaths in the past three decades than any other Texas county.
“We’re having a hard time dealing with all the bodies,” said Don White, deputy sheriff of the county. Last year, the county received a mobile morgue from the state in response to the horrific human harvesting. “I recently had to pick up three fresh ones in a day,” he said.
Outside experts believe federal immigration policies have exacerbated the tragedy, forced migrants into increasingly dangerous crossings and led refugee journeys — fleeing violence, persecution and climate disasters — to a haunted dead end.
Eva Moya, an associate professor at the University of Texas who studies migrant precarity, says the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico” — a policy introduced in 2019 under the Trump administration — have resulted in more than 70,000 people being sent back to Mexico to await their US trials, often for extended periods in makeshift camps, where they are often denied basic health care and face violence, rape, murder and kidnappings by organized crime groups.
“The risk continues to increase,” Moya says. “Asylum seekers in Mexico fear for their lives and smugglers are taking advantage of that. They will do anything to make a profit with these people. It’s human trafficking at its best.”
The Biden administration is finally ending the policy, after court battles, but it’s unclear how and when things will change substantially on the ground.
At the same time, Title 42, ostensibly a pandemic-related health measure introduced in 2020 that would close border gates of entry and allow border patrol migrants to deport migrants without asylum hearings, has contributed to the deaths in Brooks County and beyond, Alma said. Maquitico, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
“Title 42 has led to an increase in deaths,” she said. “People no longer cross in cities, but in more remote, dangerous areas. They die in the desert.”
Canales also pointed to the rural, arid expanse.
“This is the real Death Valley,” he said, contrasting it with its scorching California desert namesake.
“The immigration system has failed. The government wants to blame the cartel, but not the policies that are causing this problem. The solution is to offer an orderly asylum process. You could fix this tomorrow,” he added.
A spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the 20,000 border patrol agents who work between land ports of entry, said the death toll was the fault of traffickers.
“Criminal organizations continue to recklessly endanger the lives of individuals who smuggle them in for their own financial gain without regard for human lives,” they said in a statement. “Despite these inherent dangers, smugglers continue to lie to migrants and claim that borders are open. The borders are not open and people should not try to make the perilous journey.”
Although Brooks County is about 70 miles from the US-Mexico border, it has the largest border checkpoint in Texas. Located along U.S. Highway 281, one of the few highways northbound along the hundreds of miles of borderland in South Texas, the checkpoint handles an average of 10,000 vehicles — traveling the busiest route from Mexico and Central America to the U.S. — each day.
Like other deterrence policies, rather than the number of migrants trying to enter, the checkpoint has driven them down deadly routes, Deputy Sheriff Don White said.
People smugglers, often known as coyotes, demand thousands of dollars to help migrants cross the Rio Grande on rafts, usually to McAllen, Texas, where they will hide in dirty, cramped safe houses.
Migrants are then dropped off 50 miles north on sandy back roads, before being sent on a day-long trek over brutal terrain, where temperatures regularly rise above 100F during the increasingly hot Texas summers and dip below freezing in the winter, to avoid the checkpoint.
According to Oscar Carrillo, a Culberson County sheriff who is also dealing with a body wave, smugglers often send groups of migrants in camouflage clothes and with cannabis backpacks, allowing them to reduce the fees owed by delivering the contraband to a contact person. , if they survive the journey.
In February 2020, Carrillo stopped a group of more than 50 people en route. “They get a route like a cruise line,” Carrillo says. “There has been a huge increase in attempts to cross. But it’s a dangerous place – there are snakes, cougars. If they can’t go on, they’re left behind.”
For those who overcome the first hurdles in an attempt to reach densely populated cities like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, where they can live under the radar of the authorities, the risk is far from over.
In June, 53 immigrants, mostly from Mexico, were found dead in a blistering tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, in what was the country’s deadliest smuggling incident to date along the US-Mexico border.
More than 7,500 migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and beyond are estimated to have died on the US-Mexico border since 1999, according to data from the CBP.
Most of these deaths can be attributed to heatstroke or dehydration, according to Canales, who maintains 90 water stations in the brush.
But the actual death toll is likely much higher, he said, due to limited data and a lack of support from federal authorities.
Since 95% of the land on Texas’s southern border—and 99% in Brooks County—is private, it is often farmers and ranchers on the remote lots—some as large as 50,000 acres—that discover the recently or long-dead people. . Brooks County Sheriff’s Office estimates it finds only one in five bodies.
“It’s a burden that rests on volunteers,” Canales says. “Usually it’s us who deal with the bodies.”
Yet Canales and his team of volunteers can only achieve so much. Analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that more than 2,000 of the bodies of migrants recovered in the US have not been identified. The National Institute of Justice has called the ongoing tragedy of missing persons, leaving families unable to grieve properly, the “nation’s silent mass disaster.”
Jonathan Alberto Callejas Corado, then 25, disappeared in June 2021 when he attempted to cross from Mexico through Brooks County. The Guatemalan had planned to join his aunt and uncle in Los Angeles, but he has since been missing.
“We don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” Glenda Corado, his aunt, told The Guardian. “It’s very painful for us. We can’t mourn because we don’t know what happened.”
In an effort to find her lost cousin, last heard from in this remote corner of the country turned open-air cemetery, she has visited the Guatemalan consulate, human rights organizations and even the border patrol headquarters.
“We have not received any support,” Corado says. “The system is broken. What happened to our boy?”