Change the Tide: Extreme Heat in El Paso, Texas

12 April 2024|Chloe Gunther

El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico neighbor each other at the US – Mexico Border. The two cities form a vibrant, bi-national community. There, our JRS/USA El Paso Office accompanies individuals arriving to the country by providing emergency assistance, legal aid, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), and a network of volunteers to assist people resettling to the interior of the US. 

This week, we are traveling to El Paso to understand how our earth is changing there and the impact this change is having on the people we serve.

Director of Domestic Programs, Dr. Maria Sajquim de Torres, leads our team in El Paso. Throughout her years of experience working at the border, Maria has seen the impact of extreme weather on the migrant community and the land. This week, Maria shares what she understands to be the relationship between climate change, migration at the US – Mexico border, and the environment in El Paso.

In some circumstances, climate disasters are the final push that force someone to leave their home. Maria described the situation of an indigenous woman from Guatemala who she accompanied. The woman lived in extreme poverty as she worked in the fields, she was facing severe violence and persecution in her home country, but it was not until hurricanes Iota and Eta destroyed her house that she embarked on the journey to the US – Mexico Border.

When people decide that they are going to leave home and journey through foreign lands in search of safety, they must be ruthless in what they decide to carry and what they leave behind.

Maria once encountered a woman who left home with the clothes on her back and her infant son who was only a few months old. She and her baby traversed the treacherous terrain between their home country and the US – Mexico Border. For many migrants this includes thousands of miles through deserts, rivers, forests, and urban areas.

As risks related to climate change increase, migrants are particularly vulnerable to these severe weather impacts. As this woman traveled through the night, the temperature dropped, and she had little protection or resources to get warm. She tried all that she could to keep her baby warm, but his little body could not withstand the intense temperatures. He died before they could get to the US.

Heartbreakingly, there are many more stories like this woman’s and her child’s.

For the last 20 years or so, Maria, her husband, and their two daughters, have called El Paso home.

“I find it to be a very interesting place,” Maria said, speaking to why she has stayed for so long. “It is completely bi-lingual, and bi-cultural. The way folks here can switch between the two languages is remarkable.” It is a testament to the fluidity between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that, together, form a bi-national community.

But extreme heat waves, drought, and the risks of fire are increasingly creating hostile living conditions for this community. 2023 marked the hottest year ever in El Paso in which the city experienced 44 consecutive days above 100 degrees in June and July.

In 2021, Joan Rosenhauer,
JRS/USA President visited the border with the El Paso team. The skies opened up and pictured here is a photo of Joan and Maria accompanying individuals during the downpour. “That was the last real rain fall we had,” Maria said, “we really have not had much since.”

The dry, bare, landscape is a sharp contradiction from the tropical climates that many new migrants call home, Maria explained. After surviving the migration journey, migrants must adapt to this new climate on top of trying to understand US immigration law, obtaining a job, and supporting their families.

As more people arrive at the border, less resources are allocated to support them in meeting their basic needs. When migrants go through processing centers, many of their belongings, including shoes are confiscated, in their place, people are given plastic shoes that do little to protect their feet on the scorching pavement.

Last year, 2,000 people sought asylum in El Paso every day. Migrant shelters were overwhelmed with the amount of people and insufficient funding or support. Many people, including children, have had no option but to sleep outside.

When the outside temperature is just 85 degrees, asphalt can reach 125 degrees. “The street pavement, where people have to sleep, gets unbearably hot,” Maria said.

Without serious intervention, the temperatures in El Paso will continue to rise. By 2050, scientists and researchers have determined people in El Paso will experience about 40 days a year when the temperature is over 101.8 degrees.