EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The desert west of El Paso has claimed eight lives in May alone, and officials fear the death toll will rise as temperatures climb.

“Last year, we had 16 to 17 deaths, so to have eight in one month is quite high,” said Daniel Medrano, fire chief in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just across the Texas state line. “We are not sure what is going on. We do believe most of them to be migrants.”

The fatalities began in the second week of May, which roughly coincides with the end of Title 42 migrant expulsions and requirements to apply for asylum online. Since then, most migrants coming into the U.S. between ports of entry have been placed on Title 8 removal procedures that carry penalties including a five-year ban on future immigration benefits and possible criminal charges for repeat offenders.

“People not using CBP One (the online application) try to cross the desert and, right now, the temperatures are very high. If (migrants) don’t travel in the right conditions, if they don’t have water, we will see unfortunate situations like the ones we are already seeing,” said the Rev. Juan Fierro, director of Good Samaritan migrant shelter in Juarez, across the border from El Paso and Sunland Park.

Fierro said he encourages migrants who seek his help to think things through before placing their lives in the hands of smugglers. “We hope they value their lives and don’t take those risks because we have seen lives lost already,” the shelter director said.

According to U.S. authorities and advocacy groups, more than 800 migrants died last year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. It was the deadliest year on record.

Desert surrounds the border wall on either side at the Mexico-New Mexico line. (Border Report photo)

Southern New Mexico desert ‘a death trap’

Sunland Park lies within sight of the border wall and shares a 4,675-foot mountain called Cristo Rey with Mexico. Sunland Park and neighboring Santa Teresa comprise one of the busiest migrant smuggling corridors on the Southwest border, according to U.S. immigration authorities.

Medrano said the fire department is not in the business of finding out the legal status of people it renders potential life-saving assistance, but “most of these (fatalities) are going to be migrants from either Southern Mexico or Central and South America.”

More than 1.5 miles separate the wall from the nearest highway (NM 273) and the migrants tend to hide and walk in the opposite direction of any law enforcement patrol unit they see. Medrano said they may become disoriented in the sandy hills and mesquite brush. Plus, they come from climates much different from Southern New Mexico’s 95-degree afternoons with hardly a cloud in the sky on any given day.

“Last year, we were seeing a lot of migrants coming over (near Mount Cristo Rey). Now we’re seeing them move a little bit west and north,” the fire chief said. “It’s only about a mile and a half but it’s very hilly. If you’re not from the area, you’re going to get lost very easily. […] And it’s not even hot yet.”

Sunland Park Fire late Tuesday assisted two people who got lost in the desert after coming over the border wall. They gave themselves a chance at survival by calling – not avoiding – the authorities after spending six hours in the desert.

“A couple in their early 30s we believe to be migrants called 911 on their cell phone and were able to give us GPS coordinates so that (rescue) crews could find them much more quickly,” Medrano said. “It turned out to be very good for them; usually these rescues take three to four hours. […] The female was suffering from severe dehydration and possible heat stroke and was transported” to an El Paso hospital.

Sunland Park Fire since late 2018 has been dealing with frequent calls for assistance involving injured migrants. Incidents range from falls from the border wall, falls along Cristo Rey ridges, dehydration, and recovery of bodies.

“If you’re feeling thirsty, it’s too late. You should have been drinking water. A quart of water per hour; a gallon of water per hour if you’re doing heavy work,” Medrano said. “Sports drinks are very good because of the minerals we need. Energy drinks are very bad. Caffeine is not good for us during the hot summer months.”