THE NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON DC — Angie Simms had been searching for her 25-year-old son for a week, filing a missing person report and calling anyone who might have seen him, when the call came in August. Her son, Erik A. Molix, was in a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where he was strapped to his bed, on a ventilator, and in a medically induced coma.
Molix had suffered head trauma after the SUV he was driving with nine immigrants in the country illegally inside rolled over near Las Cruces, New Mexico, while Border Patrol agents pursued him at speeds of up to 73 mph. He died Aug. 15, nearly two weeks after the crash; even by then, no one from the Border Patrol or any other law enforcement or government agency had contacted his family.
The number of migrants crossing the border illegally has soared, with the Border Patrol recording the highest number of encounters in more than six decades in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. With the surge has come an increase in deaths and injuries from high-speed chases by the Border Patrol, a trend that Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, attribute to a rise in brazen smugglers trying to flee its agents.
From 2010 to 2019, high-speed chases by the Border Patrol resulted in an average of 3.5 deaths a year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2020, there were 14 such deaths; in 2021, there were 21, the last on Christmas.
The agency recorded more than 700 “use of force” incidents on or near the southern border in the last fiscal year. Customs and Border Protection does not disclose how many of those ended in death or how many high-speed chases take place each year.
Crossing the border without documentation or helping people do so is full of risk regardless of the circumstances, and stopping such crossings — and the criminal activity of smugglers — is central to the Border Patrol’s job. But the rising deaths raise questions about how far the agency should go with pursuits of smugglers and immigrants, and when and how agents should engage in high-speed chases.