Texas heat-related deaths reached a two-decade high in 2022 amid extreme temperatures

The border wall as seen from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter in southern New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2021. Migrant advocates say border enforcement efforts have contributed to an increase in heat-related deaths of migrants. (Justin Hamel For The Texas Tribune, Justin Hamel For The Texas Tribune)

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include data from the last three months of 2022.

Heat-related deaths in Texas last year reached a new high for this century amid a sharp rise in migrant deaths and soaring temperatures enhanced by climate change, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of state data going back to 1999.

In 2022, Texas saw its second-hottest summer on record during the state’s worst drought in more than a decade, according to data provided by state Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Climate change has increased the risk for extreme temperatures across Texas, causing higher overall temperatures and summer heat that starts earlier in the spring and lasts longer into the fall — and makes people more likely to experience heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

At least 268 heat-related deaths were recorded last year, the highest annual toll for the state since at least 1999, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

This figure included 135 resident deaths, many of whom were Texans experiencing homelessness and people without air conditioning. In Tarrant County, for example, around 70% of people who died from the heat were experiencing homelessness or did not have a functioning AC unit, according to a county medical examiner’s report that includes deaths from the first nine months of 2022. The county medical examiner’s office declined to comment.

Among Texas residents, the rate of heat-related deaths last year is still significant even when accounting for the state’s fast-growing population, which grew from just over 20 million in 1999 to around 30 million in 2022. Last year’s heat death rate was 0.45 per 100,000 residents — the second-highest rate since 1999 and trailing only 2011, when the rate hit 0.48 per 100,000 residents amid a historically hot and dry summer.

In addition, just under half of heat-related deaths in Texas last year, 133, were “non-residents.”

According to DSHS, non-residents can mean residents from another state or country. But the fact that counties on or near the Texas-Mexico border — including Webb County and Brooks County — have led the state in the number of heat-related deaths since 1999 suggests that they are largely migrants who died from heat-related causes while crossing the border.

But migration experts, advocates and local officials said the state data is likely a dramatic undercount of the actual number of heat-related deaths among migrants. They attribute the heat-related deaths to border enforcement policies that they say have forced migrants away from preferred crossing points in urban areas toward increasingly remote and dangerous routes. They added that Title 42 — a public health emergency order issued in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic that is used to rapidly expel migrants without allowing them to request asylum — also increases the number of migrant crossings.

At the same time, the danger of crossing the border has been exacerbated by extreme heat that included dozens of triple-digit days last summer.

“We’re seeing a human rights crisis happening along the border,” said Fernando García, executive director of El Paso-based advocacy organization Border Network for Human Rights. “These deaths are by policy.”

As the number of migrants apprehended at the border continues to set records, the number of migrant deaths also has reached new highs: The U.S. Border Patrol reported locating 853 bodies along the entire U.S.-Mexico border in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30 — a number that includes deaths from heat, drowning and other causes. That’s more than three times the number reported in the 2020 fiscal year, and the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, has called the southwest border the “deadliest land crossing in the world.”

Texas also often sees the highest number of recorded migrant deaths among the four states bordering the U.S.-Mexico border, which also include New Mexico, Arizona and California.

“I'm seeing an extreme increase in the number of border-crossing deaths compared to other years,” Webb County Medical Examiner Corrine Stern, who serves 11 South Texas counties, told KENS 5 in August. At the time, Stern said her office was holding the bodies of 260 migrants and had stopped accepting additional bodies for the first time in her 20-year career.

Stern declined the Tribune’s recent interview requests, citing the high number of cases she was handling.

The heat-related deaths recorded by the state in these border counties are likely an undercount, experts said, because some migrants who die after crossing the border are never recovered or their bodies are found too late to determine the cause of death. And not all deaths caused by heat are attributed to hyperthermia — excessive exposure to natural heat — as the primary cause.

For example, 53 migrants from Mexico and Central America were found dead on a hot June day inside a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio after their smuggler abandoned them. But DSHS logged fewer than 10 heat-related deaths in Bexar County in the first nine months of 2022, meaning few, if any, of those migrants were captured in the agency’s data for hyperthermia deaths.

DSHS declined to provide the exact cause of deaths for the migrants, but survivors from the tractor-trailer were later treated at hospitals for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Sylvia Dee, a climate scientist at Rice University, said climate change is “shifting the entire distribution of temperatures higher.” As a result, Texas is exceeding heat indexes dangerous to human health more frequently than it did in the past.

“People shouldn’t be outside in those temperatures at all,” Dee said.

Some experts also pointed out that extreme weather events fueled by climate change are one reason people decide to migrate in the first place.

“We hear constantly from migrants engaging in agriculture that the land is not what it used to be, that they cannot plan and cannot harvest [in their home country] anymore,” said Luz Maria Garcini, a Rice University assistant professor who researches trauma and the health of immigrant communities.

And as global temperature continues to warm, climate migration will likely become even more common, scientists have warned. According to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 2022, extreme weather events could uproot 143 million people around the world over the next 30 years.

About 70 miles north of the border, Brooks County hosts one of the busiest Border Patrol checkpoints in Texas on U.S. 281. To avoid it, migrants walk through miles of ranch land, but many are ill-equipped to trek through the thorny brush. And the journey only gets more perilous with rising temperature and humidity.

"In the ranches, that’s where you see the majority of the deaths,” said Brooks County Judge Eric Ramos. “Because of the distance from the border, by the time [migrants] get to us, they’re really exhausted. So with the heat, the thickness of the brush just becomes overwhelming.”

Brooks County, which has around 7,000 residents, has recorded at least 202 heat-related deaths between 1999 and Sept. 30, 2022, according to DSHS data — the second-highest number among Texas’ 254 counties. The agency did not provide updated county-level data for all of 2022.

But this is likely to still be a substantial undercount. A 2020 report co-authored by Stephanie Leutert, a migration policy expert from the University of Texas at Austin, found at least 535 recorded migrant deaths in total between 2012 and 2019 in Brooks County. Leutert said a large number of these deaths were likely related to heat, but may have not been counted as heat-related deaths because their cause of death could not have been determined. Some, she said, may have also been assigned a separate cause of death like dehydration, which is often enhanced by heat but can also happen during cold weather.

Ramos said the number of bodies has forced Brooks County to build a second morgue that will hold 40 bodies. He added that the county may soon hire more staff to help rescue migrants or, when necessary, recover and identify the bodies of those who died crossing.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Ramos said.

Eddie Canales, founder of the Brooks County-based South Texas Human Rights Center, said his organization is also trying to increase its capacity to respond to the crisis.

Since 2013, his organization has installed about 150 water stations throughout Brooks County and surrounding areas, leaving water in big blue buckets that hold several gallons each. He and his volunteers make weekly trips to refill the water stations.

“Water is water,” Canales said on the phone as he refilled his organization’s water stations in January. “People sweat, and they are walking for miles.”

The center also runs a hotline for people searching for loved ones who have gone missing during border crossings and assists in local governments’ rescue operations and identification of deceased migrants, which Ramos said can require a substantial chunk of the budget of Brooks County — one of Texas’ poorest counties.

“Everybody deserves some dignity in death,” Canales said.

Ultimately, experts, advocates and local officials said the country needs to go beyond deterrence-based border enforcement policies to stem the tide of migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, Ramos believes the federal government should reform the immigration system to create more legal pathways for migrants to work and ultimately receive U.S. citizenship.

“Climate change is definitely a killer for these folks,” he said. “But the inability for our lawmakers in Washington to do their job is also a killer.”

Support for this reporting was provided by Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Disclosure: Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.