Crossing the US-Mexico border is deadlier than ever for migrants – here's why

The June 2022 deaths of 53 people, victims of heat stroke, in the back of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, show the dangers of crossing the U.S. southern border without authorization.

All of the dead came from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras – the three most common origin countries of migrants encountered by the Border Patrol in 2021 and so far in 2022.

Such fatalities result from two intersecting phenomena. One is the massive growth in the federal government’s policing system in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since the mid-1990s. The other is the strong and profoundly unequal ties between the United States and the home countries of most unauthorized – or undocumented – migrants.

‘Prevention Through Deterrence’

Since 1994, when I began to research the roots and impacts of U.S. border and immigration enforcement, U.S.-Mexico border policing has radically changed. Beginning during Bill Clinton’s presidency, this transformation has involved infusing massive amounts of resources – in the form of personnel, technology and infrastructure – into a multifaceted system of border control.

The number of Border Patrol agents has grown from roughly 4,200 in 1994 to more than 20,000 today. Typically, 80% to 90% of them are stationed in the U.S. Southwest. Spending has increased as well. In 1994, the Border Patrol’s budget was US$400 million. In 2021, it was $4.9 billion – an approximately 700% increase in inflation-adjusted dollars in less than 30 years.

Complementing the growth is a federal border policing strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence. Introduced in 1994, the strategy concentrates policing personnel, surveillance technology and infrastructure in and around border cities and towns. Its goal is to push unauthorized migrants into remote areas characterized by harsh and dangerous terrain, forcing people to abandon their efforts to reach the United States.

As Doris Meissner, Clinton’s head of Immigration and Naturalization Service, later reflected, “We did believe that geography would be an ally to us.”

U.S. officials anticipated that unauthorized border crossings “would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.” Instead, the deterrence policy has compelled migrants to take ever greater risks, resulting in more deaths.

Rising death toll

Traversing the southern borderlands has long proved deadly for migrants.

In the late 1800s, for example, unauthorized Chinese immigrants died in the deserts of the borderlands as they tried to avoid policing associated with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that barred most immigrants from China. And in the 1980s and 1990s, many people, mostly Mexican nationals – sometimes numbering in the hundreds – died annually trying to enter the United States without authorization.

With Prevention Through Deterrence, however, deaths grew markedly.

According to U.S. Border Patrol statistics, there were an average of 359 fatalities annually from fiscal years 1998 to 2021 in the Southwest borderlands. This represents about one death per day over 24 years. Fiscal year 2021 saw 557 fatalities, the highest death toll on record.

Since these deaths occur among a clandestine population, no one knows what percentage of total migrant trips end in tragedy.

But research on the location of human remains does demonstrate that high-tech surveillance towers have pushed migrants to more remote, and more lethal, travel routes beyond the zones of detection.

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