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El Paso area seeing increased number of migrant deaths, many by drowning in irrigation canals

A group of migrants turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso.
Angela Kocherga
A group of migrants turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso.

The deaths of 53 people found in an abandoned tractor trailer in San Antonio this week have again highlighted the perils of illicit border crossings: Officials have, for years, warned of the dangers of trying to get into the U.S. illegally – not just because of the depredations of smugglers, but the environmental conditions most migrants encounter.

“The summer is especially dangerous. We’ve got triple-digit heat [and] dangerous treks through the desert in this area and over Mount Cristo Rey, which is right near the border in El Paso,” said Angela Kocherga, news director of Texas Standard partner station KTEP in El Paso. “And June’s been especially deadly because of irrigation canals.

Nearly 40 migrants crossing the Mexico border into Texas have died in the El Paso region since October. Those numbers are on track to surpass last year’s number of migrant deaths in that region. Of the 37 migrants who have died in this area, El Paso Border Patrol Chief Gloria Chavez says 15 of those deaths were caused by drowning in irrigation canals along the border wall.

“The currents in the water canals are incredibly strong and pose a threat to any that enter,” Chavez said in a press conference Monday. “The canals are self-cleaning and are designed to pull down any debris that goes into those waters.”

At the press conference, which was held just hours before the news broke that dozens of migrants had been found dead San Antonio, Chavez and other law enforcement officials warned migrants not to put their lives in the hands of smugglers. 

Kocherga said the migrants she’s interviewed are very aware of the dangers of crossing the border but that many have dared to come anyway, often being told they have a job waiting for them if they can cross into the U.S.

“Both business groups and immigrant advocates are pushing for reform, saying, you know, if people had work visas, they wouldn’t have to put their hands and, you know, put their lives in the hands of smugglers and sneak into the country,” Kocherga said. “But so far, there’s been no movement in Congress. So for now, it seems that the U.S. is outsourcing immigration policy to criminal groups.”

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