The number of migrants attempting to reach the United States has decreased due to COVID-19, but dangers remain high for those who still attempt the journey.
CBP’s enforcement encounters with illegal border crossers totaled 458,088 people in FY20, 53 percent lower than the encounters in FY19, which was 977,509. U.S. Border Patrol agents across the Southwest border have found at least 300 unidentified migrant human remains during fiscal year 2019, the highest number since FY 2016. Additionally, the Pima County, AZ Medical Examiner’s Office has recovered 3,081 decedents since 2000, but as of Dec. 31, 2019, 1,111 decedents remain unidentified.
“Every death of an undocumented person in the deserts of my county is a human rights tragedy,” said Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier. “In 2020, we are on pace to have a record number of recoveries, each one being someone’s brother, father, son, mother. My department expends significant resources doing these recoveries. Each must be treated as a crime scene in often very remote areas.”
Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County Chief Medical Examiner, is often tasked with positively identifying hundreds of anonymous dead bodies of men, women and children, many from Central America.
“We still have about 800 to 850 that are unidentified,” he said in a testimonial video that was also translated into Spanish. “Most of the remains that we call undetermined are likely people that have died from exposure…who may not have water available to use.”
According to the 2019 Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner Annual Report, these unidentified border crossers (UBCs)—the majority ranging in age between 50 and 89—often pass away as the result of dehydration from the sun or starvation after their smugglers abandon them. Others died from tragic accidents or even as victims of homicide during the journey.
Migrants between the ages of 20-29 accounted for the highest number of suicides. The report noted that in 2019, 41 percent of identified UBCs were of Guatemalan nationality, followed by 37 percent Mexicans, 10 percent Salvadorans, 4 percent Hondurans, 4 percent Ecuadorians, one Indian, and one Nicaraguan. However, historic trends since 2000 show more than 80 percent of UBCs have been Mexican nationals.
CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan stated that migrants are often packed into stash houses or trailers. These illegal attempts pose dangerous health risks for both the migrants and the general public.
“Alien smuggling networks are exploiting, abusing, and profiting off of misinformed individuals and families,” Morgan said. “Human smugglers aren’t service providers. They are career criminals involved in other dangerous criminal activities.”
The sad reality lies with the remains stacked in body bags on shelves in the refrigerated Pima County medical examiner’s facility, many of which are tagged with John or Jane Doe.
A more recent example of these dangers came earlier this year when Border Patrol agents in Big Bend Sector in Texas rescued a man who had been abandoned in sub-freezing weather for three days after being injured attempting to cross the border illegally. Had agents not found him, the man could have been added to the sobering statistic of deaths at the border.
“Migrants must remember that if they so much as stumble and fall or need to rest because of heat exhaustion, human smugglers will leave them to die,” Morgan said. “The uncertainty of the voyage and the grief that follows the many preventable tragedies we see are just not worth it.”
Napier agreed, adding, “We must redouble our efforts to secure our border to dissuade people from engaging in the dangerous and too often fatal activity of coming into our country without proper documentation.”