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U.S. Border officials attribute increased migrant deaths to extreme heat

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The number of migrants who have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has increased over the past few years. U.S. officials say extreme summer heat is a contributing factor. The fire department in the small border city of Sunland Park, N.M., says it's overwhelmed with calls to rescue migrants. NPR's Sergio Martínez-Beltrán spent two days with the firefighters to bring us this story.

SERGIO MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN, BYLINE: The Sunland Park fire department is relatively quiet on a recent Friday afternoon. But when the radio goes off, firefighters freeze.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Think it's going to be a female subject, possibly undocumented.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: The firemen jump on their trucks and head to the scene. The dispatcher says a woman in her late 20s is in distress. They drive to a neighborhood near the border where they spot the woman sitting up against a stop sign. She's surrounded by neighbors and by local police.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #1: Senora. Senora. Senora.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #1: Julissa (ph). (Speaking Spanish).

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: A firefighter calls her name, Julissa, and asks her if she knows where she's at or what happened to her. He picked up her name from an Ecuadorian passport she was carrying. She's 28 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #2: Yeah, she hasn't said anything to us yet.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: She's unresponsive, the police officer tells the firefighters. Her eyes are open, but they are glazed. She's lethargic. Firefighters pour cold water over her.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #2: Three fifty-nine.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #1: Three fitfy-nine BGL.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #2: Three fifty-nine BGL.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Her blood glucose level is high, a sign of dehydration. Eventually, Julissa is put in an ambulance and sent to a nearby hospital. Scenes like this have become an everyday occurrence here, Captain Abraham Garcia with the Sunland Park Fire Department says.

ABRAHAM GARCIA: Yeah, it's been tasking on our resources, on our personnel. But, you know, that's just the game that we're in today.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Sunland Park is part of the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes parts of Texas and New Mexico. In this sector, migrant deaths have more than doubled from 2022 to 2023, according to U.S. customs and border protection. This year, extreme heat and more restrictive border policies could lead to more deaths. Orlando Marrero-Rubio is a border patrol spokesperson in this area.

ORLANDO MARRERO-RUBIO: What we've seen here in the sector relating to heat-related illnesses and rescues - it's a rise on migrants that are being left behind by human smugglers.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: In these areas, temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees, sending migrants into heat exhaustion. Many border patrol agents are certified emergency medical technicians, but because of the high numbers of migrants crossing, local fire departments have to also assist. This has pushed the Sunland Park fire department to shift gears, says Captain Abraham Garcia.

GARCIA: As the years have gone by, and we started seeing this uptick in migrant calls, we had to change our tactics a little bit, learn new stuff, new strategies, new tactics, so we can better help these people.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: During the two days NPR spent with the Sunland Park fire department, nearly ten migrants were helped that included a group of six migrants, many of them from Ecuador. They had to be put in ice paths and given emergency care.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER #3: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: A firefighter asks one of the migrants to keep her eyes open. He says her name is Maria, and she say a 32-year-old from Ecuador. Another man was rescued later that evening near an industrial park. Paramedics told NPR the person was a 21-year-old from Mexico, but didn't provide a full name. He had a body temperature of 107 degrees. In the ambulance, he was gasping for air. At the hospital, he was intubated. As of the airing of this piece, it is uncertain if he or any of the others recovered.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, NPR News, Sunland Park, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán (SARE-he-oh mar-TEE-nez bel-TRAHN) is an immigration correspondent based in Texas.