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Climate change is killing migrants crossing the US border: study

The border barrier between the U.S. (L) and Mexico runs down a hillside on May 20, 2019 as taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  Getty

Story at a glance

  • Researchers examined the physiological stress associated with undocumented migration between Nogales, Mexico and Three Point, Ariz.
  • The results found that migrant deaths are disproportionately clustered in areas with the greatest predicted evaporated water loss.
  • Researchers say that no matter how much water a typical migrant may carry it won’t be enough to prevent severe dehydration.

Thousands of migrants trek to the U.S. southern border in a journey that’s considered incredibly dangerous – and now a new study has found that it’s becoming deadlier as climate change makes travel conditions more severe.

Researchers published a new study in Science this week that found as climate change has increasingly made regions of the world inhabitable it’s also making conditions for migrants more deadly. The results of the study found that undocumented migrants are disproportionately dying in harsh desert conditions that have been exacerbated from climate change.

The study involved modeling physiological stress associated with undocumented migration across a commonly traveled section of the U.S. southern border, between Nogales, Mexico and Three Point, Ariz. The results found that locations of migrant deaths are disproportionately clustered within regions with the greatest predicted evaporated water loss. Even minimum values of estimated evaporative water loss were enough to cause severe dehydration and associated causes of mortality. 

The model predicted that physiological costs of migration would rise by up to 34 percent over the next 30 years. 


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Ryan Long, associate professor of wildlife sciences at the University of Idaho and a senior author of the study, explained in a press release that his study indicated the amount of drinking water carried by a typical migrant is likely not sufficient to prevent severe dehydration. Researchers believe this deficit is only expected to increase as the climate warms. 

“Access to sufficient amounts of drinking water to support the high rates of water loss experienced during the journey likely makes the difference between life and death for many migrants,” said Long.

Severe dehydration calls for immediate medical treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic, but for migrants trekking their way to the U.S. that’s not possible as they travel hundreds of miles through remote desert.

Dehydration can become especially dangerous for young children and older adults, as it can cause diarrhea and vomiting in children while older adults naturally have a lower volume of water in their bodies.

There’s been evidence of migrants suffering from dehydration, with a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dying of dehydration and shock after traveling through a remote span of New Mexico desert with her father and a large group of migrants in 2018.

Researchers also pointed to a longstanding and controversial tactic known as “prevention through deterrence.” It’s a policy used by Border Patrol that attempts to push migrants away from urban crossing points and into, what researchers described as, “the most punishing corridors of the desert.”

Jason De León, a professor of anthropology and Chicana/o and Central American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and a co-author of the study, said, “prevention through deterrence has weaponized the natural environment against migrants and killed thousands of people in the process. This new research quantifies the effects this policy has on the human body and helps build a case that the policy knowingly puts people in harm’s way in the name of border security.”

Controversial immigration tactics have long been an issue in the U.S., with former President Trump issuing numerous immigration mitigation strategies, like the “Remain in Mexico” policy and a “zero tolerance” policy that left thousands of migrant families separated from their children.

The U.S. southern border experienced an unprecedented surge of migrants this year, with around 1.2 million southwest land border encounters recorded through September by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Researchers also emphasized their study’s findings and its connection to the trend of U.S. migration, noting that over the past decade there’s been more families, more unaccompanied minors and migrants moving through Mexico from Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. 

“These data will hopefully raise awareness among other researchers that physiological models can be used to understand highly politicized and violent social processes,” said De León.


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