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    ‘People will die’: Biden’s border order will worsen migrants’ risks, experts say

    By Lorena Figueroa in Santa Teresa New Mexico,

    People wait behind barbed wire in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on 26 May 2024 as a US border agent stands watch near the US border. Photograph: Luis Torres/EPA

    The sun blazed relentlessly on the border terrain of New Mexico, with Texas directly to the east and Mexico directly to the south, revealing inhospitable desert covered with poignant reminders of the human journey.

    Discarded water bottles, worn-out shoes and torn clothes scattered on Mexican soil along the towering US fence serve as silent witnesses to the passage of those who traverse this harsh land, heading north in search of a better life.

    Some make it alive; others, like four people just days before, don’t. The heat is a killer. Opinions are divided on whether Joe Biden’s controversial new executive order may be, too. Announced last week, the aggressive new election-year policy triggers a block on most asylum claims once the number of people crossing the border without authorization exceeds a certain level.

    The mayor of El Paso, Texas, Democrat Oscar Leeser, was at the White House for the US president’s statement , alongside a bipartisan group of elected officials. He said the order “will save lives, keep people from dying in the desert, jumping over the walls and falling, as well as keep them from being exploited”, KFOX-TV of El Paso reported .

    But Dora Rodriguez, executive director of Salvavision, a group that provides aid to migrants on both sides of the border, said the opposite, especially with the brutal heatwave that has been baking the south-west .

    “People will die. Because they will not stop crossing,” she told MSNBC in an interview from Tucson, Arizona.

    Experts and human rights advocates in El Paso are concerned that the unintended consequences of Biden’s executive action may be to worsen the risks for asylum seekers, while not deterring them from taking those risks as they flee violence, war, dictatorship, the climate crisis, and the dangers and poverty those bring.

    And they warned that more obstacles in the asylum process will increase exploitation by criminals.

    “It’s just a terrible piece of policy in terms of practical human value, waiting to see people climb [the border fence], fall and break their back,” said Josiah Heyman, the director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

    Heyman pointed back to a policy called Hold the Line, an enforcement strategy implemented by the US border patrol in the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, in 1993 by increasing patrols and imposing stricter immigration measures.

    Although unlawful migrant crossings initially dropped there significantly, the strategy – and others implemented since then – pushed people to more remote and dangerous crossing points over time, leading to more deaths, Heyman said.

    The border patrol reported a record 149 migrant deaths, most of them heat-related, in the El Paso sector during the fiscal year from October 2022 to September 2023, adding one more to an earlier El Paso Times report , more than double the previous year. More than 70 have died so far in the current fiscal year.

    In the desolate Sunland Park and Santa Teresa desert just west of El Paso, punishing temperatures are in the triple digits fahrenheit. The main features amid sand and scrub are the border fence and a federal patrol helicopter buzzing overhead.

    Three of the four migrants who died from dehydration and heatstroke just three days before Biden announced his executive action were alive when they were found but died at the hospital, the Sunland Park fire department, which assisted the border patrol in the attempted rescue, said.

    Since then, the bodies of four more migrants were recovered not far away and two others with heat-related injuries were rescued on Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, according to the fire department, where there is no border wall on the rugged hill that’s topped with a 29ft limestone statue of Christ.

    But asylum seekers stuck in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s sister city to El Paso, last week told the Guardian they would try the desert anyway. They were reeling after being told Biden canceled asylum for people like them because irregular border crossings are persistently higher than the new 2,500 daily limit.

    A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer, who asked not be named, said of such travelers: “Oftentimes, they are not prepared for the journey or the extreme heat” across that area “where we have the most heat-related casualties”. Human smugglers usually work for the powerful and violent Mexican drug cartels and do not provide enough food or water to migrants who pay to be guided to the US, the officer said.

    Usually, when law enforcement find bodies, those people hadn’t even made it two miles into the US on foot before collapsing.

    Two days after Biden’s immigration speech, 11 people were hospitalized and seven smuggling suspects were arrested near San Antonio, Texas, after authorities found more than two dozen migrants who had been driven from the border packed in a secret compartment of a trailer with little water in the sweltering heat, the Associated Press reported .

    Josiah Heyman predicted that people will become more vulnerable to human smugglers, who can charge over $10,000 to migrants from countries outside Mexico, despite often exposing them to abuse and dangerous conditions.

    Leeser has echoed Biden’s calls for comprehensive immigration reform enacted by Congress, which consistently fails to happen. Meanwhile, he expects the new policy to bring more order to the border, especially in a city like his that has declared a state of emergency three times since December 2022 , when shelters reached capacity, and has always been on the frontline .

    Amid Democratic divisions on the issue, Leeser echoed the White House when he told MSNBC that, for migrants, the new policy “allows them to use the CBPOne app”, the US government’s mobile phone app that people just south of the border can use to request asylum appointments in the US.

    In fact, they are already entitled to use the CBPOne app and it can take months, while they are stuck in shelters or sleeping on streets in Mexican border towns, to get one of the limited appointments, and those slots now will be even more sought after.

    “Time will tell,” John Martin, the deputy director of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, a non-profit that assists and provides shelter for migrants in El Paso, said of the effectiveness of relying solely on the app. He added that he was skeptical.

    “This does nothing to mitigate the violence and family separations, ignores due process and moves us away from a humane, safe and orderly system, inevitably forcing migrants into the hands of cartels and traffickers,” said Marisa Limón Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

    Back in the bone-dry Santa Teresa desert, even a hat and water provided little relief from the daytime heat. And summer had barely begun.

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