Opinion: Border Patrol’s ‘prevention through deterrence’ strategy is deadly by design

By militarizing border communities, migrants are forced to take dangerous routes in hostile terrain.

Rios is a human rights advocate with the American Friends Service Committee and directs its U.S./Mexico Border Program. He lives in Chula Vista.

During the last weekend of August, a team with Water Station, an all-volunteer organization that places water stations in the Imperial County deserts to prevent migrant deaths, discovered the body of 52-year-old Rafael Borromeo-Lopez alongside railroad tracks, west of the desert town of Ocotillo. The temperature that day would reach 108 degrees. My son and I were servicing water stations on a separate route, south of where Borromeo-Lopez’s body was found.

His official cause of death was hyperthermia due to environmental exposure. But Borromeo-Lopez’s death is one of thousands that for over two decades have covered the vast expanse of border counties with scattered unmarked graves because of a deadly border enforcement strategy begun in the mid-1990s, known as “prevention through deterrence.”

This strategy has had many iterations. President Joe Biden has assumed his predecessor’s Title 42 order, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health mandate that uses the pandemic as a pretext to empower Border Patrol officials to expel asylum seekers in violation of U.S. and international law. The Biden administration is continuing the unlawful practice of denying asylum seekers an opportunity to present their case at a port, so this misguided mandate creates desperate conditions that lead migrants to choose dangerous migration routes.

Take, for instance, the case of Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia, a Mexican national who twice crossed the border and asked the Border Patrol to file an asylum claim only to have Border Patrol agents return her to Mexico under the Title 42 order. Sadly, on her third attempt to cross she drowned off the coast of San Diego when the boat she was on fell apart.

It’s also how the Biden administration is massively expelling Haitians to Haiti, even though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes Haiti is in no condition to accept anyone. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas himself stated, “Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The militarized infrastructure of border enforcement, such as border walls, also has claimed migrants’ lives. On Sept. 1 and Sept. 3, two people died falling from the border wall in Imperial County. After a period from 2012-2019 with just four deaths, migrant deaths from border wall falls have increased from four in 2020 to 12 this year as replacement border wall barriers increased in size under former President Donald Trump, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition statistics. There have also been hundreds of injuries, according to the Mexican Consulate.

In a meeting between local San Diego advocates and then-Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in June 2018, which I attended, Scott shared that the Border Patrol purposely chose the height of new replacement border wall after it conducted psychological tests to establish at what height an average person becomes so disoriented that he or she would stop climbing a wall — 30 feet, is what Scott mentioned. Disorientation at that height would surely mean a person attempting to scale the wall would fall, resulting in serious injuries or death.

Death has always been part of the calculus under the Border Patrol’s prevention through deterrence strategy. By militarizing border communities and pushing migrants away from public view, migrants are forced to take dangerous routes, in hostile terrain, where more people perish in their attempt to cross into the United States.

In a letter to President Biden, dozens of human rights organizations are raising the alarm that more people will die unless he abandons the prevention through deterrence strategy that has long shaped border enforcement policies in border communities. In part, the letter reads, “this summer’s historic incidences of extreme heat further underscore the cruelty of the ‘prevention through deterrence’ paradigm and increase the urgency of adopting a climate-informed approach to policies affecting border communities, migrants and asylum seekers.”

We have reached the end of summer and, typically, migrant deaths decrease in cooler temperatures. However, if President Biden continues to rely on brutal border enforcement strategies and infrastructure, the likely result will be more migrants suffering and dying in their attempts to cross into the United States, compounded by how the effects of climate change in border communities and in sending countries influence migration patterns.

These deaths are preventable, but the Biden administration must drastically change course by prioritizing humanitarian responses to migration and focusing on protecting the human rights of those seeking refuge.

Pedro Rios