Research suggests that the US Border Patrol’s attempts to control migration, especially through intensified militarization, have not decreased the number of migrants but instead led to an increase in the deaths of migrants. The U.S. Border Patrol has recorded over 7,000 migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border between fiscal year 1998 and 2020, and 2020 year was the deadliest year on record, with 227 recorded deaths of those attempting to cross the border through the desert.
Humanitarian groups estimate the figure to be much higher, . While international humanitarian law dictates that states must collect the bodies of the dead, the U.S. government systematically fails to recover remains. As a result, the families of people disappeared at the border rarely find closure in the loss of their loved one.
For an in-depth portrait of this issue, check out Missing in Brooks County, a full-length documentary released in 2021 about migrant deaths in the South Texas border region, featuring Eddie Canales, NNIRR Board Chair from the South Texas Human Rights Center.
There are advocate groups working around the clock to prevent migrant deaths:
These following reports reflect the work of these organizations to bring this humanitarian crisis to light and advocate for a change in policy and put an end to the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy that has resulted in a human rights crisis with rising numbers of migrant deaths and disappearances.
- Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue and the Crisis of Disappearance. A joint report by Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths (February 2021)
- ‘Treated like trash’: the project trying to identify the bodies of migrants An article in The Guardian (January 13, 2020), by Samuel Gilbert. Includes interview with NNIRR Board chair Eduardo Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, TX
- Listen to this radio program and view gallery of border photos: Deadly Divide: Migrant Deaths at the Border
The exact number of migrant deaths is uncertain. This graph from a Congressional Research Service Report by Marc R. Rosenblum compares the data of key organizations up to 2012. It is notable that the DHS, a government agency, reports the lowest figures.
CSR Report: Known Migrant Deaths, Southwest Border, 1985-2011: Source: University of Houston Center for Immigration Research; Jimenez, “Humanitarian Crisis,” 2009; CBP Office of Congressional Affairs.
A 2013 National Foundation for American Policy report states that “evidence suggests an immigrant attempting to cross illegally into the United States today is 8 times more likely to die in the attempt than approximately a decade ago.” This report compiled date from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) into one table. It is crucial to note that Border Patrol does not count deaths on the Mexican side of the border, making their estimations immediately questionable:
NFAP Report Table 1: Immigrant Deaths at the Border: 1988-2012: Source: U.S. Border Patrol
From the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
The Colibrí Center for Human Rights has a fact sheet on migrant deaths and their work in recovering and returning remains.
Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas, a non-profit organization that seeks “to take death out of the immigration equation,” has also developed a map that records the location of 2471 migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border. The New York Times also developed a similar map, but with added details about the causes of deaths.
Unfortunately, these numbers and reports can only be estimations of the actual amount of border-crossing migrant deaths, as they include only bodies that have been found, and almost certainly overlook casualties on the Mexican side. These incidents are the tragic consequence of a highly militarized border, and, contrary to anti-immigrant policy-makers’ beliefs, do not have a significant impact in deterring others from embarking on this deadly journey. Buried in mass graves, migrant lives seem to be considered expendable and inferior.
Truthout has an in-depth article on the borderland migrant death crisis. It touches upon the direct link between increased border militarization and migrant deaths, as well as the expendability of immigrant lives in the U.S.
The Disappeared Report, a project by the Arizona-based organizations No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, seeks to uncover the border enforcement practices that have led to a “crisis of disappearances” at the U.S.-Mexico border.