WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
Every year, hundreds of migrants die trying to cross the border into the U.S. The Frontline explores how last month’s historic heat wave may have made a bad situation worse.
After the historic heat wave, this may come as no surprise: June 2021 ended as the hottest June on record for North America. Along the border, heat is nothing new. Neither is death. As temperatures continue to rise and people continue to migrate from Central and South America, the U.S. government must begin to recognize its fault.
So long as the U.S. fails to pass adequate climate and immigration policy, the planet will keep heating and people will keep dying in the desert in a desperate attempt to find salvation.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re not done covering last month’s heat wave. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The heat wave was especially deadly in the Pacific Northwest, a region ill-equipped to handle high temperatures. However, such feverish temperatures have killed more than 7,800 migrants attempting to cross the border since 1998. 2020 was the deadliest year yet. It was also the hottest summer in the region.
Over the weekend, the Jacumba Wilderness Area in California was under an excessive heat warning. Though temperatures in the desert regularly soar past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) in the summer, temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 degrees Celsius) during extreme events.
Just a few days prior, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had to rescue three undocumented men who were stranded in Jacumba suffering from dehydration and heat-related illness. All survived, but the same can’t be said for the countless others who make the journey to the U.S. in search of the American dream: economic security, safety, and a home.
Since October, the agency has conducted nearly 7,000 rescues—35% more than its last fiscal year, which doesn’t end until October. Twenty-four migrants have died due to heat. And summer’s only starting. The heat wave in June resulted in CBP assisting at least 44 heat-affected individuals attempting to cross the border over three weeks. On July 1, 2021, the agency issued an alert highlighting the “life-threatening” risk people face when crossing in the summer. Despite knowing this, the agency appears to have no formal plan to prevent any more unnecessary deaths this summer and beyond. And humanitarians along the border are feeling overwhelmed.
Atmos asked CBP in an email how it’s preparing for a climate-ravaged future where these disasters become more common (as the recent heat wave would be “virtually impossible,” per the Washington Post, without climate change). The agency simply pointed to its social media channels and media releases. There were no clear plans here—but there were heartbreaking incidents showing just how vulnerable people are when crossing through sun-scorched deserts. There was a 46-year-old diabetic man from Mexico who couldn’t walk. And an unresponsive woman who likely would’ve died without medical attention. Some 30 miles from the Texas-Mexico border, 33 undocumented people were cooking inside a locked box-truck until authorities found them.
Helping those in distress is good, but preventing them from entering such dangerous situations would be better. At the moment, the agency’s only attempt to stop folks from migrating is through a militarized border and, well, telling them not to.
“CBP’s message for anyone who is thinking of entering the United States illegally along the Southern border is simple: don’t do it,” said Justin Long, the headquarters branch chief for CBP Media Relations, in an email. “When migrants cross the border illegally, they put their lives in peril. The terrain along the border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert migrants must hike after crossing the border in many areas are unforgiving.”
“We want people who need asylum in the United States to be able to exercise their legal right to seek asylum, but we also don’t want them to die in the desert.”
Despite the odds, people still cross. And they’ll continue to—even as the Earth heats up. Kelly Overton sees this reality every day.
“We encourage people, at all costs, not to cross and not to take their kids out into the desert in the summer,” said Overton, the executive director and founder of Border Kindness, a humanitarian organization based in Mexicali, Mexico, providing aid to migrants. “We want people who need asylum in the United States to be able to exercise their legal right to seek asylum, but we also don’t want them to die in the desert. People who are desperate, whose family members are being killed, and can’t feed their children, and fled Central America often feel this desperation to where they are going to try to cross anyway.”
Though the heat wave made headlines across the U.S., Overton is used to dangerous levels of heat. An excessive heat warning doesn’t change much in his day to day. He and his team always have IV fluids, asthma inhalers, and diapers available. Many women he sees are pregnant or with young children or infants. The group is always prepared for the tertiary effects of extreme heat, too, such as violent attacks on individuals who sleep outside to cool down.
“We’re mobilized for the heat all the time,” Overton said.
That mobilization could be the difference between life and death. Our bodies are like machines, explained Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. When our bodies overheat, organs start to break down. That’s why heat is so dangerous to people with underlying health conditions; those organs are already not operating at 100%. Our bodies typically keep cool by sweating, but this physiological response requires our bodies to have enough water to produce sweat. If a person is dehydrated and overheated, sweat may not be an option. That’s when things can get ugly.
What we must remember is that none of this is necessary. People shouldn’t have to brave extreme desert climates to reach the United States. We should be able to offer them safe and legal pathways to find the help they seek. The fact that the U.S. doesn’t is a choice our leaders make.
“There really is no reason that climate change should be producing more deaths in the desert,” said Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies and geography at the University of Arizona. “The crisis that we have on the border right now is really not one of climate change… The crisis right now is the ongoing closure of the border.”
U.S. immigration policy focuses heavily on militarizing the border to keep people out. CBP monitors the flatter, safer parts of the border so that the only option for migrants crossing on foot is more treacherous terrain. The U.S. government asserts it does this to deter migration, but that’s not what happens. People still make the journey, but they choose the dangerous routes instead. This policy, argues Oglesby, is what endangers people. The heat only exacerbates the risk.
If President Joe Biden weren’t so preoccupied with playing the game of politics, perhaps he’d have passed something substantial on climate or immigration six months into his presidency. The result? More heat and more deaths.