Advocates fear that migrant deaths in El Paso are rising sharply after the recent discoveries of bodies in canals.
The canal deaths — seven bodies found since Saturday — are part of a trend worrying immigrant advocates as summer approaches.
An El Paso Times review found at least a dozen deaths of identified or probable migrants in highway accidents and drownings in the past three months.
The deaths occurred amid the continuous arrival in El Paso of thousands of mostly Central American migrants, which is straining U.S. Border Patrol resources.
El Paso law enforcement is working to identify the seven people found in canals. Water levels have risen recently due to the release of water into the Rio Grande from dams in New Mexico for the summer irrigation season.
It has not been determined whether the canal deaths were all undocumented migrants. But all except a man in an Upper Valley canal were located along or near the border.
The number of deaths is expected to continue to grow, said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an immigrant advocacy group in El Paso.
“This is shameful what is happening,” Garcia said. “I think we should be very concerned what this happening on this border. Every single migrant that dies is a reflection on this country.”
Border Patrol officials blame immigrant smugglers driven by profits for placing people at risk by crossing the border at hazardous locations.
The huge numbers of migrants arriving in El Paso have taken agents away from borderline posts and tied up resources, officials said.
The U.S. Border Patrol, Mexican and public safety agencies regularly caution migrants about the hazards that canals, rivers and the desert pose in illegal border crossings.
Groups are working with shelters in Juárez to warn migrants about the risks of crossing the Rio Grande and canals, said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute
“I think it’s something we are very worried by,” Corbett said about the recent deaths.
The Hope Border Institute is a community advocacy group based on Catholic social teachings that deals with social issues in the El Paso-Juárez area.
The El Paso Fire Department Water Rescue Team has recovered seven bodies so far this year, compared with a total of 11 in all of last year, team coordinator Capt. Kris Menendez said.
“We do believe we will have more occurrences, possibly to exceed the 18 (record number of drownings set about 15 years ago) if this doesn’t get controlled,” Menendez said.
The canals can be up to 10 feet deep, are about 10 feet wide at the top and narrow to about 6 or 7 feet at the bottom in a design that keeps water moving quickly, he said.
The water looks calm at the top but flows much quicker at the bottom, and in some spots the current “tumbles you like a washing machine in the water,” Menendez said.
“There’s a lot of hidden dangers that should not be taken lightly,” Menendez said, advising people to stay out of the canals.
Pedestrian, traffic deaths
A Times review found at least a dozen identified or probable migrants killed in border crossing attempts in the El Paso area since April. The list does not include those who died in custody.
April 6 — Two undocumented immigrants were killed when a minivan crashed while fleeing from the Border Patrol in Doña Ana County, officials said. The van carrying 11 people rolled over on Highway 9 between Columbus and Santa Teresa, N.M.
April 12 — A man identified by police as Bartolo Perez Juan, 25, of Nenton, Guatemala, was running from Border Patrol agents when he was hit by a truck and killed on Interstate 10 East near Porfirio Diaz Street.
May 11 — Colio Torres, 53, of Baja California, Mexico was struck and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 10 East near Schuster Avenue near the University of Texas at El Paso.
May 29 — Gildardo de Jesus Franco Orrego, 53, of Colombia, was with a group crossing the freeway when he was hit by four vehicles, including a semitruck, on I-10 East near Executive Center Boulevard.
The pedestrians died on a stretch of freeway not far from the border, just west of Downtown El Paso. They were identified by the El Paso Police Department.
Bodies found in canals
There have been seven bodies found in canals since Saturday.
June 8 — Unidentified female found floating face down in a canal along Passmore Road in Socorro, just east of El Paso.
June 10 — The bodies of three unidentified men were found in the morning in a water tunnel along the border fence by the César Chávez Border Highway near Ascarate Park.
June 10 — An irrigation district worker in the afternoon found the body of a man in the Union Lateral Canal in the 6000 block of Upper Valley Road in El Paso’s Upper Valley.
June 11 — El Paso firefighters conducting water-rescue training found a man and a preschool-aged girl drowned in a canal on Soutside Road in the Lower Valley.
Migrant deaths difficult to track
The exact number of migrant deaths is difficult to determine since cases are handled by various law enforcement agencies.
So far in fiscal 2019, the U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector as of June 6 had tallied four deaths — two motor-vehicle related, one undetermined and one listed as “other.”
Border Patrol statistics are updated once the investigative agency handling the death case completes its process, a Border Patrol spokesman said.
The El Paso Sector covers far West Texas and all of New Mexico. The fiscal year began in October.
The Border Network for Human Rights has recorded 10 deaths in El Paso this year, Garcia said. The group’s figures included three children who died in custody, two pedestrians on the freeway and five of the canal deaths.
“People are crossing in higher numbers with more risks to their lives. This is an unprecedented time in our region,” Garcia said.
At the start of the migrant influx, the U.S. government should have added staff and resources to handle asylum-seekers at the border ports of entry instead of the Trump administration’s hardening of immigration policies, Garcia said.
“Right now, the border is tainted with the blood of children and families dying because of the policies of this administration,” Garcia said.
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