Drownings in West Texas canals are rising as more migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border

Posted at 10:24 PM, Jun 28, 2019

Natividad Quinto Crisóstomo was dreaming of reuniting with her husband in Arkansas when she died in an irrigation canal near the United States-Mexico border fence.

The 19-year-old from the Mexican state of Michoacán is among the nearly dozen people who have drowned in El Paso-area canals this month as the region deals with an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border. Only 11 canal drownings were reported in 2018 alone, said Enrique Aguilar, a spokesperson for the El Paso County Fire Department.

The rise of drownings in West Texas canals is another example of the perilous journey migrants take to get to the US. Earlier this week, the image of a Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned as they were crossing from Mexico into Texas near Brownsville renewed the debate over border policy.

On Wednesday, the body of Quinto Crisóstomo was discovered floating in a canal that runs parallel to the Rio Grande near Clint, Texas, a spokesman with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said.

Quinto Crisóstomo had traveled more than 1,000 miles north after leaving her 2-year-old daughter with her husband’s family in central Mexico. Despite her parent’s disapproval, she joined a group of her husband’s relatives on the trip to the US, Jose Luis Gutierrez Perez, head of the secretary of migrant rights in the state of Michoacán, told CNN.

At least seven other people, including a preschool-aged girl, have been found dead in canals and water tunnels in the past three weeks.

While authorities have not released the names or nationalities of most of the victims, water officials and migrant rights advocates believe most of them were migrants.

Many of the deaths were reported in irrigation canals that run parallel to the border fence and the river that divides the US and Mexico, said Jesus Reyes, the general manager for El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, the agency that maintains and operates the canals.

It’s hard for residents to come near the canal, Reyes said, because the canal system is far away from roadways and surrounded by multiple fences on both sides.

“But if you come over the (border) fence, you are right there within a foot of the canal,” Reyes said.

If a person falls into the canal, there’s no way anyone other than border patrol agents or water commission employees can reach them.

Canals look calm but have strong currents

The drownings have been linked the recent release of water at the nearby Elephant Butte Reservoir that began on June 1. Before the water was released, the irrigation canals in the region were carrying only a few inches of water.

Water was originally scheduled be released into the irrigation system in March, but it was delayed until more snowmelt made its way from Colorado, Reyes said. The system distributes water to local farmers and two water treatment plants over the summer until September.

In the past weeks, water levels at the canals have risen from a few inches to 4 to 8 feet deep, officials said.

“Sometimes it doesn’t look as deep, so accidents happen. You could be walking, then it drops down 5 to 6 feet,” said Enrique Aguilar, a spokesperson for the El Paso County Fire Department.

“There are strong currents, it looks calm on the top, but under the water there are strong currents and inclines,” he added.

The rise of deaths has authorities in both sides of the border scrambling to reach migrants and discourage them from going near canals or waterways.

In Ciudad Juárez, local officials began broadcasting a video this week to warn migrants about how dangerous the region’s canals are.

“If you are not alive, there’s no future or dream to reach,” the video says.

Ports of entry along the border have long been overwhelmed by the surging asylum claims, according to Customs and Border Protection officials. Migrant advocates say the recent policy changes to toughen the US asylum process are pushing more migrants to risk crossing in more dangerous areas. They have also warned that the number of deaths at the border will increase.

In Ciudad Juárez, the city’s human rights director, Rogelio Pinal Castellanos, said his staff has been working around the clock to accommodate thousands of migrants awaiting in the Mexican border city. But despite their efforts, some still choose to enter the US illegally, he said.

As of Tuesday, more than 5,000 migrants were waiting in Ciudad Juárez as their asylum cases are decided, Pinal Castellanos said.

‘They are just getting desperate of waiting’

Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, said the number of drownings is “extraordinary” and is a reminder of the dangerous journey that migrants decide to take out of desperation.

“In Mexico, they don’t have any community connections. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have attorneys,” Garcia said. “They are trying to sneak into the US because they are just getting desperate of waiting in Mexico because they are hearing their court hearings are happening in months.”

Last week, a Guatemalan woman and her child were rescued from a canal near downtown El Paso by US Army soldiers and Border Patrol agents. The woman and her child were struggling in the swift water and had submerged completely when a soldier jumped into the water and another “used his shirt as a makeshift lifeline,” US Customs and Border Protection said.

The pair was rescued with no injuries, CBP said.

Drownings and water rescues have been reported not only in El Paso area but also near other ports of entry. In Eagle Pass, a 13-year-old Honduran boy was unconscious and not breathing when Border Patrol agents pulled him from the Rio Grande and resuscitated him earlier this week.

While the boy survived, Border Patrol agents there have been 21 deaths in that same area since the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year.