Just a few years ago, a migrant child drowning in the Rio Grande was national news, portrayed as an indictment of former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Now, under his Democratic successor, drownings are so routine they barely merit a tweet. On Nov. 11, Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens posted on X that “tragedy strikes again” after “a mother & 2 children are swept away by the Rio Grande river,” with a picture that appears to show a young girl receiving CPR.
Joe Biden came into office promising a “fair and humane” immigration system, anchored by a shift away from what critics said were inhumane conditions at the southern border under the Trump administration. But three years later, the border with Mexico is the world’s deadliest land crossing. Drownings in the Rio Grande, the river that forms the border in Texas, are reported frequently, sometimes daily.
Adult migrants are making their own choice to cross, of course, exposing themselves and any children with them to the inherent dangers of a harsh landscape. But to someone desperate to reach the United States, the choice to cross illegally instead of going to a port of entry to claim asylum can seem rational — especially now. This administration has created perverse incentives that encourage more migrants to try — and to bring kids with them — while reducing the likelihood that smugglers helping them will be identified and punished. For all the human misery the president’s policies have unleashed, though, there has been little outrage like was directed at Trump.
But what has been occurring in the Rio Grande in Texas is a tragedy, and we shouldn’t go numb. Beyond the Nov. 11 social media post, authorities have said little about that particular incident. But as I pursued the story further, more disturbing details emerged. Based on a tip from an employee at Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington I learned of an internal report indicating that a 4-year-old unaccompanied child, identified as Antonela Nazareth Sanchez-Ruiz, got swept away in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass. According to a picture of an email containing the report, which was released internally to Border Protection on Nov. 13, her mother was still in Venezuela.
According to the details of the report — which the Border Protection employee said could evolve with more investigation — Antonela was crossing the river with a “large group of migrants” before getting swept away. She was recovered by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which assists an overwhelmed Border Protection at the border. She was transported to Fort Duncan Regional Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 9:48 a.m. Border Protection at the Eagle Pass Station was notified of her death that afternoon.
Tragedy strikes again! A mother & 2 children are swept away by the Rio Grande river. Agents & partners pulled them from the water & performed CPR on the young girl. We are praying for the best.— Chief Jason Owens (@USBPChief) November 11, 2023
This is what our agents see everyday & why they ALWAYS move mountains to save lives. pic.twitter.com/KA89vHVNNy
A Nov. 13 post on X from Chris Olivarez, the spokesperson for Texas DPS, confirmed that a female child “succumbed to the drowning” after transport to Fort Duncan Regional Medical Center. It said the girl was 7 years old and there was a 17-year-old male from the “family group” who was “found [and] recovered from the river in critical condition.” The post had no mention of a mother or relation of the two minors.
Multiple questions arise from the different accounts. Was Antonela unaccompanied? What was her relationship to the 17-year-old boy? What was her destination? Why was she allegedly alone in a large group? And why is the number of illegal crossings, and the inevitable drownings and other deaths that result from them, continuing to rise?
Many migrants arriving to the southern border hope to apply for asylum — a legal protection for people fleeing violence in their home countries. They are supposed to stay in Mexico and apply by using a cellphone app to schedule an appointment at a US point of entry. In theory, if they’re caught crossing the border illegally, they’ll be sent back, thus creating an incentive for migrants to avoid the dangers of the Rio Grande.
But in practice, the administration has bungled the app rollout. Besides multiple glitches associated with the app, there aren’t nearly enough appointments to meet demand. Olivarez said he has asked migrants why they risk their lives crossing the river instead of using the app. In an interview, he told me he often hears that the app is “not working properly [and] there’s anywhere from a three to six month wait to even get to a point of entry.”
Another problem, as critics have pointed out, is that the administration has left many loopholes in the rules, which mean it’s still possible for migrants to claim asylum and stay in the United States if they are caught crossing illegally, which waters down any deterrence effect. Indeed, on Tuesday, the number of migrant encounters broke a daily record, with over 12,000 reaching the border and over 10,000 of those crossing between ports of entry. Why wait six months for a glitchy app to work if crossing the Rio Grande gives you a reasonable shot of getting into the country right away?
The administration also took away another tool that may have deterred land crossings — DNA testing of family units at the border. Smugglers can group children with single adults and claim they are a family unit; the tests were used to determine whether groups of migrants were related. Critics of DNA tests cited concerns about migrants’ privacy. But getting rid of the tests means one less deterrent for smugglers.
Getting rid of DNA tests also makes it harder to untangle what happened in incidents like the one last month.
“Unless a family member actively showed up and said ‘she’s my daughter or sister, brother or whatever,’ will we never know,” Eagle Pass Fire Chief Manuel Mello III said. His department’s EMS unit responded to the dual drowning on Nov. 11 after being called by DPS. “For that incident number there’s only two patients,” said Mello, who confirmed that an unnamed female patient around 6 years old — who I believe to be Antonela — was transported to the hospital as EMS performed CPR. A 17-year-old male was recovered “alert and oriented” but with low body temperature. It doesn’t appear that the minors were related: According to Mello’s description of the EMS report, the boy was from Honduras and the girl from Venezuela. There’s no mention of any guardian with the girl: “[The EMS report] doesn’t mention anything about her being accompanied or any family members signing her EMS report,” Mello said. He said that if present a parent usually signs the report. Does that mean she was unaccompanied? “It could be.”
If Antonela was indeed unaccompanied — meaning, without her parents — it would not be unusual. Minors risking the border crossing has become an all-too-common phenomenon under the Biden administration, especially as overall border encounter numbers reach record levels. The previous all-time record for encounters with unaccompanied minors was in fiscal 2019 with 76,020 encounters. That number dropped to 30,557 in fiscal 2020. But it began rising in fiscal 2021 under Biden. That year, there were 146,925 encounters; in fiscal 2022 there were 152,057. The number dipped slightly last fiscal year, to 137,275 known encounters with unaccompanied minors, but in October, the first month of fiscal 2024, CBP reports there were 11,522 encounters with unaccompanied minors — and it’s quite possible more are being smuggled undetected.
As ever-present regional instability in Central and South America and Biden administration policies embolden human traffickers, there is a growing concern about the safety of unaccompanied children. “The demographic groups with the highest proportions of minors are also disproportionately crossing through a route that is especially dangerous for children,” Gil Guerra, an immigration policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, said. He said that the most deadly area for drowning is near Eagle Pass. According to Guerra’s analysis of data from the Missing Migrants Project, in 2023 the leading cause of migrant child death at the southern border was drownings in the Rio Grande.
According to Oliveraz, “right now the river is very dangerous because the water level is very high, and the current is very strong. …There’s been some type of drowning taking place just about every single day or someone in distress every single day whether it be a child or adult.”
Many migrant children are left at the mercy of ruthless smugglers — and often exploited and trafficked or simply left to die. On Nov. 7, Border Protection agents found an abandoned child who was left behind by a group of migrants who, according to a post by Owens, were “evading capture.”
The policy failures that have contributed to more unaccompanied minors crossing the border predate Biden and are bipartisan. A law passed in 2008 under former president George W. Bush, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, inadvertently created an incentive for children from Central America to cross the border. Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and the resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which describes its stance as “low-immigration, pro-immigrant,” wrote that the TVPRA “is now being exploited by those seeking to bring UACs to the United States illegally (smugglers, parents, other relatives, traffickers, the children themselves, etc.).” As The Washington Post opined in an editorial in 2014, the law “encouraged thousands of Central American children to try to reach the United States by granting them access to immigration courts that Mexican kids don’t enjoy.” Attempts to reform that law have gone nowhere in a gridlocked Congress.
The way the Biden administration has complied with that law, though, has also created risks for unaccompanied minors far from the border. According to a February story by The New York Times’s Hannah Dreier, migrant children often end up doing exploitative work that violates child labor laws. “These are not children who have stolen into the country undetected,” Dreier wrote — under the 2008 law, they are placed with sponsors. “The Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults,” Dreier wrote, and “caseworkers say they rush through vetting sponsors.”
One investigation in Florida documented what happens to many of those kids. After interviewing 49 of the 13,000 unaccompanied minors that arrived in Florida in 2022, a grand jury found that “the children interviewed knew very little about the individuals that transported them during their journey to the border. … One child disclosed that during her journey several members of her group were robbed, attacked by gang members, decapitated, and raped. The child disclosed that she was one of the victims of rape.”
This year there have been multiple congressional hearings on the exploitation of migrant children. Yet child exploitation and death is still tragically routine.
On Nov. 20, Mello told me, “we had three children that were transported with hypothermia … and they were performing CPR [on one of them]. Throughout the day we recovered another two bodies.” He said that five years ago, they might see 6 drownings a year. Now they sometimes see that many in a week.
And there’s been little change in policy. “We need to reform our immigration laws,” Mello said. “Men, women, and children are drowning and nobody’s really doing a damn thing about it. My guys are stressed out, they’re seeing death every single day, and yet the federal government hasn’t put a stop to this.”
Congress ought to reinstate DNA testing and send more support to Border Patrol. It should also boost the number of available work visas while making it easier and more accessible for families and individuals to apply for citizenship from their home countries. Qualified applicants shouldn’t have to risk their lives and their savings to arrive here — they should have a cheap, streamlined option to apply for legal citizenship.
But vulnerable people are already dying — and at unprecedented rates. Democrats, so quick to denounce border tragedies under a Republican, seem to be going easier on one of their own. The president and vice president have rarely been seen there. The leadership’s promise to create a “fair and humane” border has never materialized. Did migrant lives matter more in 2020 than they do today?
Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.