EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Advocates and a local government official are calling on the Biden administration to reopen the border to asylum-seekers after nine people drowned in an 11-day stretch in June in El Paso County irrigation canals running parallel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’ve been warning about this for 18 months,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. “The idea that sealing the border and sending migrants to more dangerous places to cross is going to deter migration is erroneous. They are still crossing, and they are dying in extraordinary numbers.”

El Paso city and county authorities continue to investigate 10 drownings since June 9. In all but one case – that of a homeless man found in a South-Central El Paso canal – the victims could be migrants coming across from Mexico. Two were already identified as a Mexican man and a woman from Guatemala. Several others that fell into the canals during that stretch were rescued alive or given CPR by El Paso firefighters or U.S. Border Patrol agents.

The drownings began shortly after U.S. authorities released seasonal irrigation water into the canals.

Garcia blamed the drownings on Title 42 public health order which empowers border agents to immediately expel newly arrived migrants. Most of those migrants turn around and attempt to cross again, this time in areas they believe the Border Patrol won’t be able to apprehend them.

Fernando Garcia, executive director, Border Network for Human Rights. (Border Report file photo)

Garcia is calling for an immediate end to Title 42 – which a federal judge in Louisiana is keeping in place despite the administration’s objections – and for National Guard troops and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to roll back border operations so migrants don’t risk their lives coming across through dangerous places.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego blamed the drownings on migrants stuck in Juarez, Mexico “getting desperate.”

“If Title 42 was not in place, they would be able to form, be able to come across and the process would flow. When the process doesn’t flow, there is a huge sense of desperation,” Samaniego told Border Report on Monday. “If they’re not willing to jump in a canal because it’s dangerous (and) they’re being rational. But when their families are desperate, they haven’t eaten, they don’t know what’s going to happen, they take those chances and those are the things that happen.”

Officials estimate that at least 15,000 migrants are in Juarez waiting for the end of Title 42 so they can apply for asylum in the U.S. The Border Patrol was apprehending an average of 1,000 migrants a day in mid-May, shelters were full and migrants were sleeping on the streets in Juarez in anticipation of a May 23 rollback of Title 42. When that didn’t happen, apprehension numbers went down to 700 to 800 a day in the sector.

“Right now, our numbers are low because people aren’t crossing, but they’re building up back in Juarez and that is a huge burden for Juarez and the desperation is just amazing,” Samaniego said. “You can just imagine you’re with your family and you think you’ll be able to cross over and go into the process and that doesn’t happen then you run out of money. The desperation happens to see if you can figure a way to do it, even if it’s a dangerous way.”

Garcia of BNHR said the Biden administration needs to take immediate action or more migrants are going to die.

“I’m sure that as long as Title 42 and other ‘deterrence’ policies remain in place, we will see an increase in migrants who die in isolated, remote and dangerous places such as canals, rivers, deserts and mountains,” he said. “And we’re talking about those whom we are able to find because we’re getting more and more calls from people asking about their relatives who disappeared trying to cross the border.”

El Paso working on more shelter space, community ‘processing center’

Samaniego said El Paso authorities continue preparations to deal with the rollback of Title 42, which he believes will happen sooner or later.

The county is trying to set up its own “processing center” to assist between 500 and 600 migrants released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody and have relatives or sponsors waiting for them in the interior of the United States. The City of El Paso and the Office of Emergency Management are planning to open a second, larger facility (a shelter) for those who need time and resources to make a rendezvous, he said.

“We’re working on different tracks. The city is looking for a shelter for about 1,000 to 1,100 (migrants) that we can get beds in there for,” Samaniego said. “It’s not going to take care of the entire crisis when Title 42 is lifted because there are more people than resources (but) we can hopefully get that flow going in the right direction.”

City and county authorities several weeks ago began talking about getting involved in temporary migrant housing when the director of the largest private shelter in the region advised he planned to close it.

Casa del Refugiado will cease operations sometime in July, though Annunciation House, its parent agency, will continue running 16 additional, smaller shelters in Far West Texas and Southern New Mexico.

Casa del Refugiado “really is not functional” when it exceeds 300 to 400 guests, Samaniego said. “We have to find one that is equivalent to Casa del Refugiado. […] If we (do), Mr. (Ruben) Garcia would be all in, and that is a blessing. Most people know the reason we’re successful is Ruben Garcia’s way of doing things.”