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Strict border policies contribute to rising immigrant deaths

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Supreme Court also handed down a decision this week in favor of the Biden administration. This one cleared the way for the government to end Remain in Mexico. That's a Trump-era policy that forced some migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases played out in U.S. courts. The court's decision came the same week that 53 migrants died after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer in Texas. Immigration advocates warn that strict border policies like Remain in Mexico have contributed to the rising number of immigrant deaths along the southern border.

To help us understand the impact of these policies, we're joined by Elizabeth Trovall, who covers immigration for the Houston Chronicle. Welcome.

ELIZABETH TROVALL: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: We obviously pay a lot of attention to tragedies like the one we saw in San Antonio. But the last two years have been especially deadly for migrants at the southern border. What are the numbers? How bad have these two years been?

TROVALL: Right. 2021 was the highest year on record for migrant deaths in the Americas and at the U.S.-Mexico border since at least 2014. That's according to the Missing Migrants Project. And last year, there were 728 migrant deaths and disappearances reported at the U.S.-Mexico border.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the border policies. We mentioned Remain in Mexico. There's also Title 42, and that's a policy that allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants at the border on grounds of public health without letting them ask for asylum. That policy is still in effect. How have both of those policies been affecting the flow of migrants across the border?

TROVALL: Right. So Remain in Mexico was more significant prior to Title 42. So this was when the Trump administration largely was asking migrants to wait for months for their immigration cases to play out. And they're waiting in places like Matamoros, Mexico, which have really high crime and kidnapping rates. And so migrants that are waiting for their cases are kind of like sitting ducks to cartel associates. And so that pushes them into a more desperate situation where they're trying to figure out a way to get to the U.S. as quickly as possible and then going to smugglers and figuring out ways to get out of danger, which then may put them in more danger.

BLOCK: So it sounds like what you're saying is that because the paths to asylum have been cut off, the migrants are taking more risks to make that crossing.

TROVALL: Yes, but we're also seeing the high number of people that are arriving. And I want to say, you know, Title 42 at this point is a much more sweeping policy that's blocking, like, hundreds of thousands of people, especially Central Americans and Mexicans from the asylum system. And so, again, people are being returned to Mexico or home countries without an asylum process in place, without a legal channel of coming to the United States and, again, resorting to dangerous situations like you saw this week with the overheated tractor-trailer found in San Antonio.

BLOCK: What about the argument that these border policies are necessary if you want to deter migrants from trying to make this crossing in the first place?

TROVALL: Right. Well, officials are arresting a record number of people at the border so far this year with Title 42 in place. You know, May alone had around 240,000 border arrests, making that around 1.5 million so far this fiscal year. So people are coming because they have been pushed from their home countries because of poverty, a lack of jobs, also violence, political instability. And so those factors, along with the availability of jobs in the United States, is going to continue pushing and pulling people towards the United States.

BLOCK: Meantime, as we mentioned, we did have the Supreme Court ruling this week that the Biden administration can scrap the Remain in Mexico policy. What have you been hearing in terms of reaction to that ruling and what effect it might have?

TROVALL: Well, many immigration experts and immigrant advocates are happy about the ruling. You know, theoretically, allowing Biden to rescind Remain in Mexico makes a safer context at the U.S.-Mexico border by opening up avenues to seek asylum. But that program is being used at a much smaller scale than it was during the Trump administration. Much larger numbers are being impacted by Title 42. We're talking about thousands versus hundreds of thousands.

BLOCK: And that policy, Title 42, as we said, does remain in place.

TROVALL: It does remain in place. And a federal judge is preventing Biden from ending that policy. And so as it makes its way up the courts, we'll see whether or not Biden is ultimately allowed to end Title 42.

BLOCK: That's Elizabeth Trovall. She covers immigration for the Houston Chronicle. Elizabeth, thanks very much.

TROVALL: Thank you, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.