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Migrants warned about perilous border crossings as deaths increase

A wooden cross in memorial to a border crosser, Maria V. Cortez, on a hilltop east of the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of Tucson.

Border officials and representatives from Mexico and Central America are making a direct plea to people considering the often deadly journey of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border undocumented.

“Our ultimate hope is that migrants seek the assistance of the U.S. Border Patrol and other first responder components through the 911 system. Or, they seek safety and assistance along their route as soon as they realize the extremely treacherous journey is not for them, that they do so before they find themselves in a life-or-death situation and before it’s too late,” said Rafael Reyes, acting deputy chief patrol agent for the Tucson Sector.

The most repeated message: Make sure phones are fully charged and call 911 if they are in distress.

As part of the Missing Migrant Program Summit, representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the consulates of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, the Mexican state of Sonora and nongovernmental partners shared a message, speaking in Tucson at a Nov. 18 news conference, for people who might migrate to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Fiscal year 2022, which ended in September, was a deadly year for migrants trying to cross the border undocumented. More than 800 migrants are known to have died along the U.S.-Mexico border, a large portion of whom drowned in Texas’ El Rio Bravo, according to reporting from NPR.

That’s up from 600 known deaths in fiscal year 2021, which set a record then, according to a Government Accountability Office report on the Missing Migrant Program.

George Serrano, national coordinator for the Missing Migrant Program, talks about the program and the dangers migrants face when crossing the border.

The Border Patrol worked to rescue more than 22,000 migrants in 2022, Reyes said. There were about 13,000 migrant rescues in 2021.

The Arizona desert, in particular, is one of the most dangerous places to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, increasingly so as enforcement strategies push migrants who choose to cross into more remote parts of the border.

Nonetheless, the number of migrant remains found in fiscal year 2022 at the Arizona border dropped slightly from the previous two years, according to data from Humane Borders’ Migrant Death Mapping, a project done in partnership with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office.

In 2022, there were 183 migrants whose bodies or remains were recovered in known migrant corridors. In 2021, that number was 237 — a record; and in 2020, it was 211. The No. 1 cause of death is exposure to the elements.

The Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program, created in 2017, is intended to identify and help missing or injured migrants, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The program works with consulates of various countries and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations to find people who have gone missing crossing the border and those who are in distress and need help.

The Border Patrol still needs to improve the program, according to government oversight.

In April, the Government Accountability Office found the Border Patrol had not collected or reported to Congress complete data on migrant deaths, in particular those instances where an external entity first discovered the remains.

A new report on Nov. 15 found that the Border Patrol has made some improvements, including officials visiting six of the nine border sectors to review their activities and discuss how data on migrant deaths is collected and entered into the tracking system.

The agency needs to continue improving how they collect and record available information on migrant deaths, the report said.

George Serrano, the Border Patrol’s national coordinator for the program, has visited multiple sectors and says they’re working on streamlining the information they get from outside organizations, such as missing persons reports from consulates, and also avoiding having multiple missing persons reports on the same person.

“We don’t want to get three reports for one person, and it’s going to multiple sectors and then we’re duplicating our efforts, and we’re multiplying the number of people we’re looking for,” Serrano said.

The Border Patrol is working “to deconflict that information to accurately report who we’re trying to look for, who we’re rescuing, so we can provide accuracy in the numbers and the data,” he said.

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara


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Related to this story

More migrants are dying in Southern Arizona's desert. To find specifically where and why death counts are rising in this humanitarian crisis, the Star analyzed data and public records and conducted scores of interviews. Our investigation finds key trends and recommends urgent actions and policy changes to prevent deaths.

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