With more border crossers, US groups seek to stem deaths

FALFURRIAS, Texas (AP) — Every week, migrant rights activist Eduardo Canales fills up blue water drums that are spread throughout a vast valley of Texas ranchlands and brush. They are there for migrants who venture into the rough terrain to avoid being caught and sent back to Mexico.

The stretch of land 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of the U.S.-Mexico border is dangerous, and many have died. But some migrants — usually single adults — are willing to take the risk, walking through the shrub-invaded grasslands on the sprawling ranches, seeking dirt paths to circumvent a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on a major highway where agents verify people’s immigration status.

“People die here. People get lost. People are never heard of again. They go missing,” said Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center.

The Biden administration is dealing with a growing number of single adult migrants crossing the border; they made up nearly two of every three encounters in April. This elusive group is less likely to surrender to U.S. authorities to seek asylum than families and children, often choosing risky routes away from Border Patrol checkpoints and intake sites, where agents process families and children traveling alone.

Of the Border Patrol’s 173,460 total encounters with migrants last month, 108,301 were single adults, with more than half of them Mexican. The numbers were the highest since April 2000, but most were quickly expelled from the country under federal pandemic-related powers invoked last year by then-President Donald Trump and kept in place by President Joe Biden.

Unlike deportations, expulsions carry no legal consequences, and many migrants try crossing multiple times. The Border Patrol says 29% of people expelled in April had been expelled before.

In Brooks County in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, local officials have recovered 40 bodies of migrants in the brush so far this year. In all of 2020, they found 34 bodies, though the coronavirus pandemic vastly reduced the numbers of people coming to the United States.

The Border Patrol keeps its own statistics, which tend to be lower than those tracked by aid groups and local officials because it only counts the remains of migrants it comes across.

Officials this year have found the decomposing body of a Honduran woman with a document identifying her as a fruit packer for the banana company Chiquita as well as a Mexican man who appeared to have worked at a factory. Sometimes, sheriff’s deputies only find skeletal remains.

Brooks County sheriff’s Patrol Deputy Roberto Castanon said he thinks this year has been particularly busy for migrants walking this treacherous stretch to elude capture.

While agents try to count how many people avoid apprehension, it’s difficult to do in the Rio Grande Valley. Its often thick brush has traditionally not had many sensors. The Border Patrol’s most trusted method of counting how many people get away relies on observing tiny human traces: dusty footprints, torn cobwebs, broken twigs, overturned pebbles.

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Eugene Garcia & Adriana Gomez Licon