Border Patrol has undercounted by hundreds the number of migrants who've died at the border
Data suggests that since the 1990s, more than 8,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the searing border desert, while humanitarian group No More Deaths estimates deaths to be as high as 10,000. Desperate people are taking more and more dangerous and isolated routes as mass deportation policies militarize the border and give families little way to reunite, only worsening this crisis:
Even immigrants who are in the country lawfully struggle to bring attention to the disappearances. Take Irma Carrillo Nevarez, a Mexican citizen with legal US residency who lives in Phoenix. Her son Julio and daughter Yadira vanished trying to cross into Arizona through the desert in 1999, she said. She hired a private investigator and reached out to both the Mexican consulate and the Border Patrol. And 16 months ago she provided a DNA sample to the Colibri Center for Human Rights, in Tucson, which helps families to try find and identify relatives who’ve vanished crossing the border. She says she has gotten little help from the authorities. “We, the poor, we have no money or connections,” she said. “We have to speak … but who do you turn to?”
Certainly not Border Patrol. Earlier this year, No More Deaths released footage of agents tampering with and destroying jugs of water left for border crossers in the desert. While racist border vigilante extremists have eagerly confessed to some of the destruction, human rights groups have long suspected border patrol agents of being participants as well. The footage confirmed it:
Hunters, militia members and other actors were partly to blame but statistical analysis of the different land jurisdictions – national forest, state trust land and private land – identified border patrol as the only group with regular access and consistent presence in all three jurisdictions.
The report also cited anecdotal evidence from volunteers and an unnamed former border patrol agent interviewed last year who was quoted saying: “I remember people smashing and stepping on water bottles, I remember that being imparted on to us in one way or another.”
Advocates now worry that under Donald Trump’s mass deportation dragnet and call to hire thousands more border agents, deaths could skyrocket:
Jason De León is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan and was named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow for his work on undocumented migration. He’s spent much of the last decade investigating who dies crossing the border, what happens to their bodies, and what can be learned from the personal possessions they leave behind.
He criticizes the Border Patrol for what he calls “a systematic effort to undercount and underreport”– and for ignoring how border enforcement strategies are causing these deaths.
De León worries about the impact of the border policies proposed by President Trump and the GOP majority in Congress: some form of additional border wall and more aggressive deportations.
Adding to the discrepancy in numbers are the migrants whose remains are never found, dying in remote areas of the desert and getting scattered by animals or the elements. They join those migrants whose bodies were recovered but never identified in risking—and losing—everything in search of better lives for themselves and their families. There are deliberate efforts to erase their faces, names, and existence, but they were somebody. They mattered.