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National Opinion

“An Acute and Worsening Crisis”: Migrants Face Dangerous Conditions at America’s Southwest Border

The memorial to Josseline Quinteros in the desert of southern Arizona is simple but beautiful—a small white wooden cross painted with flowers and adorned with rosaries. A compass sits at the base.

Josseline was fourteen when she journeyed from El Salvador to the United States, hoping to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. She traveled with her younger brother in a group led by a coyote, a sort of migrant smuggler-guide. Along the trek, Josseline fell dangerously ill, and when it became clear that her illness would allow her to go no farther, she implored her brother to leave her behind and keep moving. Josseline passed away in that rugged expanse of wilderness, though her brother completed the journey and brought the heartbreaking news of his sister to his mother. 

I visited Josseline’s memorial last January with a small group of students and humanitarian volunteers. Before we reached the site, we passed through dry rocky terrain dotted with tough, prickly vegetation and criss-crossed by barbed wire fences. The group observed a moment of silence upon reaching the memorial and left water jugs for migrants traveling along the path. Some left messages on the jugs reading “Paz y esperanza.” Peace and hope.

Josseline’s tragedy fits into a broader reality of harsh, often deadly, conditions faced by migrants at the U.S.’s southwest border. In an interview with The Politic, Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler of the humanitarian organization No More Deaths remarked that “thousands [of migrants] have lost their lives and disappeared without a trace in the desert.” According to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration, 240 migrants have already died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border region in 2019.

The dangers migrants face in attempting to reach the U.S. are myriad. Orlovsky-Schnitzler stated that “migrants typically cross through very dry, very hot regions, often with few natural sources of safe, clean water.” She added that “[i]t is, in most cases, physically impossible to carry enough water to remain healthy and properly hydrated crossing the border on foot into the United States.” 

To address the high number of migrant deaths, No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups transport “supplies like water, food, and blankets, depending on the season, into active migration corridors,” said Orlovsky-Schnitzler. However, not everyone has taken kindly to the practice.

The U.S. Border Patrol, in particular, has subverted aid efforts. Footage collected by No More Deaths shows Border Patrol agents kicking over and pouring out water jugs in the desert, presumably left for dehydrated migrants.

No More Deaths has also criticized the Border Patrol’s chase-and-scatter techniques for their tendency to result in migrant injury, disappearance, and even death. Chase-and-scatter techniques generally involve the aggressive pursuit of migrants by Border Patrol agents, sometimes even by helicopter. The “chase” can encourage agents to beat, taze, and sic dogs on migrants, which in turn fuels migrants’ perceptions of the Border Patrol as dangerous. Migrants are therefore more likely to flee from agents, even when ill or injured, spurring a cycle of cruelty and fear.

This calls into question Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan’s testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on July 18. McAleenan told lawmakers that Border Patrol agents “have chosen a career about protecting others” and that CBP is “absolutely committed to the well-being of everyone that they interact with.”

The Border Patrol’s apparent antagonism towards migrants extends beyond damage to supplies left along migrant trails. A ProPublica investigation recently uncovered a secret Facebook group called “I’m 10-15”—code for “aliens in custody”—comprised of nearly 10,000 supposed former and current Border Patrol agents. Members in the group posted explicitly racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic memes and comments.

The ProPublica article included a screenshot of a particularly upsetting post about a photo of a father and his young daughter lying dead in the Rio Grande. The author of the post referred to the father and daughter as “floaters,” writing:

“Ok, I’m gonna go ahead and ask…have y’all ever seen floaters this clean. I’m not trying to be an a$$ [sic] but I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS, could this be another edited photo. We’ve all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things…”

According to ProPublica, the “pair drowned while trying to ford the river and cross into the U.S.”

During McAleenan’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee, Ocasio-Cortez pressed the acting secretary about the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group and the violent, racist memes posted within it. McAleenan expressed disapproval of the posts but ultimately defended CBP and the Border Patrol: “Those posts are unacceptable, they’re being investigated, but I don’t think it’s fair to apply them to the entire organization or [to say] that even the members of that group believed or supported those posts,” he said. It should be noted that at the time of ProPublica’s investigation, neither the posts Ocasio-Cortez questioned McAleenan about nor the post describing deceased migrants as “floaters” had elicited any negative reactions by group members.

It comes as little surprise, then, that conditions for migrants do not seem to improve once they have been apprehended by the Border Patrol.

A July 2 report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warns of “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults [in CBP facilities] in the Rio Grande Valley.”

According to the report, CBP has held migrants far longer than is generally permitted under the agency’s own Transport, Escort, Detention and Search (TEDS) standards. The OIG found that “Border Patrol was holding about 8,000 detainees in custody at the time of [the OIG’s] visit, with 3,400 held longer than…72 hours,” the usual maximum acceptable under TEDS standards. Some 1,500 people were held for longer than ten days.

In general, CBP processing facilities are intended to serve only as short-term holding spaces. Adult migrants and families are then supposed to enter U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) custody, while unaccompanied minors are generally transferred to shelters managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The prolonged detention of migrants at facilities ill-equipped for long-term needs has produced devastating consequences. Adults have been held in overcrowded cells for more than a month without access to showers or a change of clothes. At some facilities, migrants have been given wet wipes as substitute for showers. Some detainees have been fed exclusively bologna sandwiches, resulting in cases of constipation.

Photos taken by the OIG show cells overcrowded to the point of violating fire marshall limits. According to the report, “eighty-eight adult males [were] held in a cell with a maximum capacity of 41” at Fort Brown Station in Brownsville, Texas. 

Conditions have become so unbearable that detained migrants have clogged toilets with blankets just so they could leave the cramped cells while the toilets were repaired. On one occasion, a group refused to return to their cell after it was cleaned. The OIG reported that “Border Patrol brought in its special operations team to demonstrate it was prepared to use force if necessary.”

Detained children face equally reprehensible conditions. At some facilities, children had no access to showers. Lawyers who visited the sites in late June reported that children’s clothes were crusted with food, mucus, and even breast milk. One lawyer described the conditions as “dirty, neglectful, and dangerous.” Children lacked access to hot meals and slept in cold rooms with concrete floors while overhead lights remained on 24/7. Notably, TEDS standards require that children receive hot meals and that “reasonable effort” be made to provide them with showers after two days in detention. 

The attorneys also found that health concerns, such as influenza outbreaks and lice infestations, were going untreated. According to Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank which studies immigration around the world, CBP “didn’t start conducting medical checks on all children until after two children died” last December. Even now, contagious diseases remain a concern across immigration facilities: an outbreak of mumps has plagued immigrant holding facilities in Texas. According to Houston Public Media, “[t]he Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed 436 total cases of mumps [across all facilities] since the outbreak started in 2018.” I.C.E. has declined to confirm whether detained migrants are being vaccinated for the disease.

DHS responded to the OIG’s report by emphasizing the seriousness of the matter. In a memorandum to the OIG after the report’s drafting, DHS official Jim H. Crumpacker wrote, “The current situation on the Southern Border represents an acute and worsening crisis.”

Indeed, that very crisis served as the reason for McAleenan’s July testimony, which focused to a large degree on CBP’s treatment of children. In response to questioning from Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) regarding the squalid conditions children are being held in, McAleenan retorted, “We’re doing our level best in a very challenging situation.”

Cummings was incensed: “What does that mean? What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces? Can’t take a shower?… None of us would have our children in that position.”

McAleenan sat unresponsive and looked genuinely at a loss for words.

Unresponsiveness might be a defining element of DHS. Bolter disputed the characterization of the border crisis as the fault of migration trends and the larger failures of the U.S. immigration system. She told The Politic that CBP acted belatedly in response to the recent surge of migrants, which began almost a year ago.

“Even when the current surge that we’re seeing started back in August of 2018, CBP didn’t really seem to take actions to improve these conditions or react to the new flows of people that we’ve been seeing—many more families than young children—until they really needed to,” Bolter said. “They weren’t prepared,” she added simply.

The present surge of migrants should not have surprised immigration authorities. Data from the CBP demonstrate a mostly steady increase in the number of apprehensions at the southwest border, beginning in August 2018 and peaking in May of this year.

Furthermore, push and pull factors for migrants have been amplified in recent years. On the side of push factors, Bolter pointed to political instability in Honduras and Guatemala, the countries of origin for many migrants who travel to the U.S. She referenced a presidential election in Honduras in 2017 “that was highly contested,” with “reports of fraud” that prompted protests and a subsequent crackdown on protesters. She also cited tension in Guatemala surrounding a “UN-backed commission that was investigating corruption in the government” and that has recently lost influence. 

In addition, Bolter expressed concerns about environmental factors. “Farmers have been suffering, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras, due to droughts that are sweeping that area,” she said. Such droughts will likely worsen in the coming years, due to climate change. 

Even more dramatic, however, are recent changes to pull factors. Bolter remarks that “a strong U.S. jobs market and family reunification” have encouraged migration from Latin America for a relatively long period of time. But she also believes that the Trump administration’s own clumsy attempts to halt immigration may have actually created a new, significant pull factor. Bolter described a sort of “policy chaos,” arguing that frequent changes in U.S. policy may encourage migrants to travel to the U.S. while the changes are enacted and challenged in court. 

“[T]he administration has implemented a series of very restrictive policies that affect people who would be coming across the border, whether that’s family separation or trying to crack down on who can claim asylum,” she said. “But those restrictive measures have often been quickly struck down by courts in the United States and have been rendered ultimately ineffective. And when smugglers see that going on, they can encourage people back in these countries of origin that they need to come now, before another policy comes down that’s going to keep them out.” 

Mark Morgan, the acting head of CBP, admitted on NPR last month that he expects the administration’s safe third country asylum policy will be struck down or at least tied up by the courts. The point, Morgan says of the policy, is for migrants to “realize that coming here illegally and taking that perilous trek is not going to get them entry [and] that they’ll stop coming.”

Morgan has not been shy about his personal beliefs about migrants coming to America’s southwest border. In January, he drew criticism for his comments made on Fox News about migrant children. Morgan told host Tucker Carlson:

“I’ve been to the detention facilities, where I’ve walked up to these individuals that are so-called minors, 17 or under, and I’ve looked at them, and I’ve looked at their eyes, Tucker, and I said that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member. It’s unequivocal.”

NPR offered Morgan an opportunity to retract those remarks, but he expressed that he regretted only the specific wording of them.

The director of Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), Vicki Gaubeca, helps illustrate why the administration’s attempts to deter migration instead only fuel policy chaos. She said in an interview with The Politic, “If a house were on fire, and there was a person inside, and you locked the door, they’re still going to do everything possible to get out of that burning house.”

That analogy informs the way the SBCC seeks to re-envision the southwest border. “What we’re pushing for is this model of border governance as opposed to the concept of border security,” explains Gaubeca. She urges Americans to view border communities as “places of encounter, of hope, of opportunity” and to give primacy to human rights in conversations about border policy.

For Josseline and countless other migrants, America’s southwest border is not a place of hope, but of tragedy. America is not, in the words of McAleenan, “doing our level best.” We can and must do better.