SAN JUAN, Texas (Border Report) — Triple-digit heat, unwanted vermin and the prolonged closure of immigration courts and Southwest border restrictions are driving some asylum-seekers to attempt to cross the Rio Grande, at least four of whom drowned recently, said a Catholic nun who helps oversee volunteer services for the migrants at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.
Three people died in a span of 24 hours on Aug. 26, which came a week after the Aug. 19 drowning of a 20-year-old Guatemalan man who was a “leader” at the camp where about 1,000 asylum seekers live next to the Gateway International Bridge across from Brownsville, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report.
Pimentel says families are “desperate to leave” the enclosed tent encampment after river levels rose precipitously following Hurricane Hanna and brought an onslaught of giant rats and venomous snakes that have been coming into migrants’ tents when they sleep.
“It’s sad. It’s tragic: three deaths in less than 24 hours. It’s something to be worried about. Definitely families at the camp are tired, desperate, worried for themselves. They’re afraid for their children. They are wanting to come into the United States to continue their asylum claims and it’s just at a standstill at the border,” Pimentel said. “Families are attempting to cross hoping that this might be a better option for them.”
The river is only about 4-feet deep between Matamoros and Brownsville, Pimentel said this week from her offices in San Juan, Texas. It’s a place where many wade in the river to bathe and refresh themselves.
“So it’s hard to understand why someone would drown,” she said. “It’s not safe, but you would see them do that a lot.”
But after waiting for months during this ongoing pandemic for their U.S. immigration court proceedings to continue and for their chance to claim asylum in the United States, some are trying to cross the river to get into the United States out of desperation. And some aren’t making it.
“It’s hard to understand what’s happening, but it’s definitely something serious and we need to do something about it to stop this,” she said.
U.S. immigration courts have been closed since border restrictions were placed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s uncertain when immigration court hearings will resume, and border restrictions have been extended through this month.
Video showing a body being dragged down the Rio Grande surfaced Aug. 26 on social media, prompting much concern within the camp, she said. “The following day another body was found and then later that day another body was found,” she said.
The names of the deceased have not been released. Pimentel said she has been in talks with officials with the Instituto Nacional de Migración, the Mexican agency that handles immigration issues and oversees the safety of the camp, to learn the identities and to work with leaders from the various countries within the camp and to spread the word to discourage migrants from attempting to cross the Rio Grande.
Called the Rio Bravo in Mexico because of its ferocity and dangerous undertow currents, the river is not safe to walk across, even when water levels appear just chest-high, CBP officials told Border Report.
“We do want it out there to the public and to migrants that if they’re crossing the Rio Grande it’s a rapid river,” said Dustin Araujo, CBP Assistant Chief Patrol Agents for the Rio Grande Valley Sector. “We’ve seen too many over-loaded rafts the smugglers use to bring migrants across. They have zero regard for the safety of those they bring across.”
Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings last week told Border Report that nationwide, agents have assisted with 4,000 water rescues so far this year. Many occur in the RGV Sector, although officials could not provide a breakdown in numbers sector by sector.
“They’re working the border area day in and day out and they’re doing a lot of rescues on the river, too, almost 4,000 rescues BorderPatrol-wide so far this year,” Hastings said.
A video posted to the CBP website shows CBP agents from the Air and Marine Operations assisting in a swift water rescue during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Hastings said many of his maritime agents, as well as Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team, were sent to Louisiana last week to assist after Hurricane Laura made landfall.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.