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Migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border hit a record high, in part due to drownings

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Migrants waiting to be picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol under an international bridge in Eagle Pass, Texas, earlier this month.

The river that divides Texas and Mexico is known on the U.S. side as the Rio Grande. On the other side, it has a different name: El Río Bravo, "the angry river" or "the fierce river."

"It seems like it's a slow moving river, but it's fairly swift. It is very deceptive, very dangerous," says Manuel Mello, the fire chief in Eagle Pass, a small city in South Texas that's become one of the busiest crossing spots on the entire border.

The fire department helps recover the bodies of migrants who drowned trying to cross. Mello says the department used to get one or two calls a month. Now it gets dozens.

"It's basically a drowning a day that you're seeing," Mello says.

This has been the deadliest year ever for migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 800 migrants have died border-wide in the fiscal year that ends this week, according to internal government figures shared by a senior Border Patrol official.

Drownings are part of the reason why. Hundreds more have perished from extreme heat in remote borderlands, or in the backs of tractor-trailers.

A dramatic rescue in the angry river

Eagle Pass has emerged as one of the more dangerous crossing points on the border — especially after heavy rains, when the river is high. Earlier this month, nine migrants were recovered from the river near Eagle Pass on a single day.

NPR watched as several families with young children waded out into the water on the Mexico side, only to turn back when it got too deep.

Venezuelan migrant Anderson Infante saw the river's power firsthand.

"We all just jumped into the river without knowing how deep it was, and how strong the currents were," Infante says in Spanish.

Infante crossed the river a few weeks ago near Del Rio, Texas with a group of migrants. He had almost made it to the Texas side, he says, when he heard screams coming from the water.

"I hear a young woman yelling, 'help, help, I'm drowning,' " he says. "But everybody kept going, no one was helping her."

Luckily for her, Infante had worked as a lifeguard back in Venezuela. He says his training kicked in, and he dived back into the river to help.

"I pulled her out of the water and I told her to breathe and told her to calm herself down, otherwise she'd drown," he says.

Authorities in South Texas struggle to keep pace with deaths

First responders and law enforcement officials in South Texas say they're struggling to keep up with the pace of migrant fatalities.

Maverick County, which includes Eagle Pass, has no medical examiner. So the remains of migrants have to be stored at a local funeral home until they can be transported to neighboring Webb County.

Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber says the funeral director recently called to ask if the sheriff had a place to store bodies.

"Right now, they're overwhelmed," Schmerber says. "No, we didn't put anybody here. But I know that he has a problem with the number of people that are dying, and he doesn't have space."

It's the second year in a row that migrant deaths near the border have climbed sharply. More than 560 migrants died in FY 2021, according to internal government figures, setting the previous record for a single year.

Immigration authorities say the criminal organizations that smuggle migrants over the border are largely to blame.

"Smuggling organizations are abandoning migrants in remote and dangerous areas, leading to a rise in the number of rescues but also tragically a rise in the number of deaths," a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement, noting that the number of rescues performed by CBP officers and agents at the border climbed to more than 20,000 this year.

Immigration hardliners have not been shy about blaming the growing number of fatalities on President Biden.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, says the Biden administration is encouraging more migrants to try the dangerous crossing by lifting some of former President Trump's harshest border policies. Abbott was particularly critical at a press conference in late June, when more than 50 migrants died after being trapped in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio.

"It is the deadliest migrant smuggling incident on U.S. soil. And it's on President Biden's watch," Abbott said.

But immigrant advocates say it's not fair to blame the rise in migrant deaths on the current president alone.

Immigrant advocates say longstanding U.S. policy is to blame

"The border conditions are incredibly inhospitable, and they have been since the late '90s," says Robin Reineke, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. Reineke is also the co-founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, a nonprofit organization that helps the families of migrants who've died or gone missing near the border.

For decades, Reineke says U.S. administrations of both parties have embraced the strategy known as "prevention through deterrence" by making it harder to cross in safer spots.

"The basic idea behind prevention through deterrence is that once people would see how difficult and dangerous it was to cross, that they wouldn't try," she says. "They did try, and they died in the thousands."

Reineke says it's time to rethink that strategy, and create more legal pathways for migration.

"It isn't just a matter of strategy anymore." she says. "It's a matter of human life and the costs, socially and morally to an entire generation of border residents, and families of those who died crossing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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