Sight Magazine – Essay: Crossing the US-Mexico border is deadlier than ever for migrants – here’s why
- JOSEPH NEVINS
The June 2022 death of 53 people, victims of heatstrokeon the back of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, shows the dangers of crossing the southern United States border without permission.
A migrant, seeking to surrender to immigration officials, rests while holding a child after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States from Mexico at Roma Creek, Texas, United States, July 12. PHOTO: Reuters/Adrées Latif
These deaths are the result of two overlapping phenomena. One is the massive growth of the federal government’s policing system in the US-Mexico border regions since the mid-1990s. The other is the strong and deeply unequal ties between the United States and the countries of origin of most unauthorized – or undocumented – migrants.
“Prevention through deterrence”
Since 1994, when I started research the roots and impacts of border and immigration enforcement in the United Statesthe US-Mexico Border Patrol has changed dramatically. From the presidency of Bill Clintonthis transformation involved the injection of huge amounts of resources – in the form of personnel, technology and infrastructure – into a multi-faceted border control system.
“These deaths are the result of two intersecting phenomena. One is the massive growth of the federal government’s policing system in the US-Mexico border regions since the mid-1990s. The other is the strong and deeply unequal ties between the United States and the countries of origin of most unauthorized – or undocumented – migrants”.
The number of Border Patrol agents has increased from around 4,200 in 1994 to over 20,000 today. Typically, 80-90% of them are stationed in the southwestern United States. Expenses have also increased. In 1994, the Border Patrol budget was $400 million. In 2021, it was $4.9 billion, an increase of about 700% in inflation-adjusted dollars in less than 30 years.
This growth is complemented by a federal border enforcement strategy called Prevention through deterrence. Introduced in 1994, the the strategy concentrates police personnel, surveillance technology and infrastructure in and around border towns and villages. Its goal is to push unauthorized migrants into remote areas characterized by rugged and dangerous terrain, forcing people to abandon their efforts to reach the United States.
As Doris Meissner, head of Clinton’s Immigration and Naturalization Service, later reflected“We thought geography would be an ally for us.”
U.S. officials predicted that unauthorized border crossings “would drip down once people realize what it is.” Instead, the policy of deterrence forced migrants to take ever greater risks, resulting in more deaths.
Increased death toll
Crossing the southern border regions a long proven deadly for migrants.
In the late 1800s, for example, unauthorized Chinese immigrants died in the deserts of the borders as they tried to avoid police associated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law that bans most immigrants from China. And in the 1980s and 1990s, many people, mainly Mexican nationals – sometimes numbering in the hundreds – died every year trying to enter the United States without permission.
With prevention through deterrence, however, deaths have risen sharply.
According to US Border Patrol statistics, there were an average of 359 deaths per year between fiscal years 1998 and 2021 in the southwestern border regions. This represents approximately one death per day over 24 years. The 2021 fiscal year saw 557 deathsthe highest death toll ever recorded.
Since these deaths occur among an underground population, no one knows what percentage of the total number of migrant journeys end in tragedy.
But research on the location of human remains demonstrates that high-tech surveillance towers have pushed migrants into more remote and deadlier travel routes beyond detection zones.
Another dangerous method of unauthorized entry, as seen in San Antonio, involves cramming people into poorly ventilated spaces like the back of a truck. The hope is to transport them across the border and inside the United States undetected by the authorities.
The official death tolls quoted above are likely serious undercounts. They are based on human bodies or remains that are recovered. But many corpses are never recovered due to the difficult terrain and enormous size of the region: the US-Mexico border is about 2,000 miles long. A combination of bodily decomposition and dispersal of remains by animals further exacerbates the underestimation problem.
border patrol also did not include thousands of deaths in its official accounts. According to an April 2022, US Government Accountability Office ReportCustoms and Border Protection “did not collect and record, or report to Congress, comprehensive data on migrant deaths or disclose limitations with the data it reported.”
At the Border Patrol Tucson areafor example, there were more than twice as many deaths as the agency reported from fiscal year 2015 to 2019, according to the report.
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The Mexico-United States connection
In 1999, anthropologist Josiah Heyman has made a provocative suggestion“The United States and Mexico truly form a unified, though very unequal society,” he wrote, “brought together rather than separated by the border.”
At the time, Mexico was the United States’ second largest trading partner. It was also the source of 98% of people apprehended by the Border Patrol in the southwestern United States. The free movement of people, unlike commercial goods, was not included in NAFTA, the 1994 law North American Free Trade Agreement.
Today, one could easily make a similar observation to Heyman’s about Guatemala and Honduras compared to the United States. Both have deep and extensive social, political and economic ties to the United States. But these links are profoundly unequal. The United States also has a history of intervention in Central America which, as research shows, directly contributes to the instability and insecurity that preparing the ground for today’s migration.
In the aftermath of the deaths in San Antonio, the American authorities blamed smugglers for the deaths. President Biden, for example, said that the deaths “underscore the need to tackle the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry that preys on migrants”.
Such the responses are typical of Washington following such tragedies. But this framework obscures the fact that migrants’ heavy reliance on smugglers is a direct result of the dramatic growth of the federal government’s Southwest Border Enforcement system and associated deterrence strategy. In its official document of 1994 describing the prevention strategy through deterrencethe Border Patrol has even included among its “success indicators” higher fees charged by smugglers and increasingly sophisticated smuggling methods.