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The fatal border
Sensemaker audio

The fatal border

The fatal border

A little-known US law, brought back in by Donald Trump, has caused a surge in migrants from Mexico. It’s not what President Trump intended.


Claudia, narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the man whose job it is to find the bodies of dead migrants.  


Oscar Carrillo is a small-town sheriff in West Texas. And every morning, he packs his truck and heads down to the Mexican border. 

And in his truck, alongside his cowboy hat and radio, Oscar Carrillo packs something else.  

A corpse trolley. 

“Agents at the border are preparing for what could be a deadly summer for adult migrants making their way into the US… “


The number of migrants crossing the border from Mexico into the United States is surging.  

“We’re in the middle of a historic influx across the border, we haven’t seen border crossing numbers like this since the early 2000s…”

Nick Miroff, Immigration Enforcement & DHS reporter, Washington Post

And with more migrants crossing, there’s one stark consequence: more are dying.

This year alone, Oscar Carrillo has found the bodies of 19 migrants. 

And that’s just scratching the surface. By July of this year, Border Patrol officials like Oscar Carrillo had found 383 dead migrants. That’s the highest toll in nearly a decade.

It’s the extreme summer heat that’s causing the most deaths: dehydration, heatstroke, and just being left behind by smugglers. The border-lands are really brutal territory. And as for Oscar Carrillo’s corpse trolley, well he told the New York Times – that’s so he doesn’t “have to carry remains anymore”.

The sad truth is that migrant deaths can go unaccounted for years. The areas surrounding the border are so vast, that some bodies aren’t discovered until little is left. 

So the question is, why is there a sudden – and deadly – influx in migrants? And how is the United States handling it? 


Now if you think back to America in 2016, then you’ll probably remember speeches like this one.

“We’re going to build a wall. It’s going to be built. It’s not even, believe it or not, a difficult thing to do.”

Donald Trump speaking in 2016

As part of his election campaign, former president Donald Trump promised he’d build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico – and make Mexico pay for it.

Fast forward to president Joe Biden’s campaign, and the story was a little different.

“The fact is I’ve made it very clear, within 100 days I’m going to send to the United States Congress, a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people and all of those so called dreamers, they’re going to be immediately certified again to stay in this country…”

Joe Biden speaking during the 2021 election campaign

oe Biden made a sweeping promise to reform immigration. And since he took office, he’s paused construction of Donald Trump’s wall, created a taskforce to reunify migrant children with their families, and set up reviews of schemes to allow legal immigration – schemes which Donald Trump had stopped.   

So why are border sheriffs like Oscar Carrillo finding so many bodies? 

Two words: Title 42.


“Well a big factor driving this is the title 42 of the public health code that has been in place since the start of the pandemic…”

Nick Miroff, Immigration Enforcement & DHS reporter, Washington Post

Title 42 comes under the US Code of Laws.

“and under that process, migrants who are taken into custody, particularly single adults, are quickly returned to Mexico without any legal consequences or risk of jail time…”

Nick Miroff, Immigration Enforcement & DHS reporter, Washington Post

It’s specifically a public health service law. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute – but ever since its introduction in 1944, it’s rarely been used. 

That was until Donald Trump’s administration saw it as an opportunity to pursue their goal of sending migrants back. And while initially they didn’t really have the legal authority to use Title 42 once the pandemic struck, the Trump administration pressured public health authorities to enforce it.

That’s because under Title 42, the government has the ability to take emergency action to stop the “introduction of communicable diseases” like Covid-19. That’s why it’s a public health measure. 

So, in March 2020, when the pandemic posed a serious risk to the population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention triggered Title 42 under US law. 

Since then, hundreds of thousands of migrants have been deported.

But expelling migrants without providing them the opportunity to seek protection goes against both the United States’ and international law in protecting refugees. 

And when Joe Biden became president back in January, nothing really changed. Title 42 stayed pretty much in place. 

And according to the advocacy group Human Rights First, Joe Biden’s administration is responsible for 6,000 reported kidnappings and other violent attacks against asylum seekers. That’s because once migrants are sent back across the border, gangs in Mexico are targeting vulnerable families and demanding ransoms before they let them go.  

And Title 42 has created a kind of paradox.

Using it was meant to make it easier to send migrants back to their country of origin but you could argue it’s encouraged more of them to try and cross the border in the US. That’s because it sends people back without doing many checks or keeping any records. So there are no additional penalties for trying to cross again. 

Migrants are expelled within hours rather than days. If they want to, they can have another go at getting into the States almost immediately even if they’re warned not to.

“I want to clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States Mexico border, do not come. Do not come.”

Kamala Harris

That’s vice president Kamala Harris. Back in June, she toured migration sites in El Paso, west Texas, not too far from where Oscar Carrillo is based.

“The United States will continue to enforce our law and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur, but we as one of our priorities will discourage illegal migration.”

Kamala Harris

But it turns out you can’t stop migration just by warning people not to come.

And the jails are now so full of smugglers that Oscar Carrillo has had to start turning away criminals brought in by other law enforcement agencies.

It’s clear that the United States still has a border crisis.  

And Title 42 turns out to be not only a law, but proof of the law of unintended consequences. It’s done exactly the opposite of what Donald Trump intended. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.