Originally Published in The New York Times
Miriam Jordan - March 26, 2021
A 9-year-old migrant girl drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande into Texas with her family, according to federal authorities, the first reported death of a child in a new surge of migration along the southwestern border.
U.S. Border Patrol agents responding to a rescue call found a mother and two children, all three unconscious, on an island in the river that separates the United States from Mexico. The agents were able to resuscitate the mother and the younger child, a 3-year-old boy.
The older child was transferred to emergency medics in Eagle Pass, Texas, but remained unresponsive and was pronounced dead after the March 20 episode, according to a statement released on Friday by the federal Customs and Border Protection agency.
The rescued mother was Guatemalan; her children were both Mexican nationals, the statement said.
Austin L. Skero II, the chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector in South Texas, said that his agents had rescued more than 500 migrants attempting to illegally enter the country since the start of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. A total of 82 migrants have died in that period, according to C.B.P. data.
A Cuban man died Wednesday night while trying to enter the United States by swimming around the border barrier that stretches into the ocean between Tijuana and San Diego, the second migrant to drown in the area in less than two weeks, according to the Mexican authorities.
Desperate migrants brave perilous river, ocean and desert crossings to reach the United States. Many have died of heat stroke after getting lost in the remote, rugged arid lands of Arizona.
Those crossing the Rio Grande typically move under cover of darkness. Many pay smuggling networks hundreds or thousands of dollars to float across on inflatable rings, which are often used to hold both an adult and a child.
In 2019, a father and his daughter from El Salvador died while attempting to cross the river near the border city of Matamoros, Mexico. The picture of the father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down along the banks of the Rio Grande, her tiny head tucked inside his T-shirt, an arm draped over his neck, captured worldwide attention.
Humanitarian groups leave water jugs in desolate areas on the migrant trail in Arizona where the terrain and heat pose great risks to crossers. Since 2004, about 3,400 migrants have perished in southern Arizona.
Last year, 227 bodies were recovered, the most in a decade. Humane Borders, which tracks and maps the deaths, and the Pima County medical examiner in Tucson attributed the high number to the hottest and driest summer in that state’s history.
A pair of hurricanes last year in Guatemala and Honduras, the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on economies across the developing world and President Biden’s commitment to a compassionate approach to immigration have compelled hundreds of thousands of people to journey to the Mexico-U.S. border in recent months.
The Border Patrol apprehended nearly 100,000 migrants in February, the 10th consecutive month of increases and the highest number since 2019, when the Trump administration clamped down on unauthorized entries by introducing a series of deterrence measures, including requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their immigration court hearings.
Monthly apprehensions had plummeted to 16,182 in April 2020 as the pandemic prompted former President Donald J. Trump to invoke a public-health emergency to seal the southwestern border to all but essential travel.
But apprehensions, the key indicator of the volumes of people trying to enter illegally, have climbed every month since then.
Mr. Biden has reversed or loosened some Trump-era restrictions, including the “Remain in Mexico” policy, while he and his top advisers have repeatedly urged migrants not to make the trek. But numbers have soared at the border, and Republicans have blamed his new approach for attracting the large numbers of migrants that have overwhelmed border processing facilities.
The Biden administration continues to expel thousands of migrant families to Mexico under the public-health law, known as Title 42.
But thousands of Central American families who have only recently made their way to Mexico are also being allowed into the United States, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, because the Mexican state of Tamaulipas has been refusing to take them back.
The number of families intercepted by U.S. agents at the southwestern border soared to 17,773 in February from 6,173 in January. The Border Patrol expelled four out of 10 people in family units under the public-health order, according to official data.
The crush of arrivals in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest migrant gateway, is forcing the Border Patrol to release families even faster than usual to avoid the overcrowding in border processing stations that has drawn sharp criticism from immigrant and child-welfare advocates in the past.
For smugglers, that has represented a marketing opportunity.
“The mixed messaging is creating this mess,” said Jaime Diez, an immigration lawyer in Brownsville, Texas. “The coyotes know, and will say everyone gets in. So people come.”
Elisabet Arreada Lopez and her two young daughters are among a large number of families who have recently set out from Guatemala hoping to start a new life in the United States. Her husband, who was already living in Ohio, hired a coyote to help them.
After arriving in Reynosa, Mexico, they floated on inner tubes across the Rio Grande to reach Texas, where they encountered the U.S. Border Patrol, she said.
“People back home were saying this is the moment to cross,” Ms. Arreada said from the bus station in Brownsville, where federal agents had dropped her off after processing.
The large number of families arriving is a challenge, said Hugo Zurita, executive director of Good Neighbor Settlement House, a soup kitchen in Brownsville.
Its staff and volunteers, in partnership with the city, provide new migrants with Covid-19 tests and hot meals and then help make travel arrangements.
To avoid a bottleneck of families during the pandemic, “our priority is to get them to their destination as quickly as possible,” Mr. Zurita said.
Alberto Gomez, 32, another migrant who recently arrived in Brownsville, said that lack of opportunity in Honduras drove him to try to settle his family in the United States.
“I couldn’t even make enough for us to eat, things were getting so bad,” said Mr. Gomez, who sold car accessories on the streets.
“We watched the news to see how the situation is in this country. When Biden won the election, we decided to take this path,” he said.
Earlier this month, he, his wife and three children made the journey by bus to northern Mexico.
A few days after reaching Matamoros, he paid $200 to a guide who supplied his family of five with three inner tubes to cross the Rio Grande.
Once in the United States, he said, the family walked for two hours, until they encountered Border Patrol agents and turned themselves in.
After being processed at a station, he said, “we gained free entry.”
Soon they were on their way by bus to Newark, where relatives awaited them.
Ilana Panich-Linsman contributed reporting.