MIGRANT DEATHS

The Border Wall's Human Toll

The border wall has led to the deaths of thousands of human beings. As urban areas along the border are walled off, desperate migrants are rerouted through treacherous unpopulated areas, trudging through rugged mountains and searing desert, and fighting swift currents to enter the United States. As a result, studies estimate over 5,000 migrants have died from dehydration, exposure or drowning have been found, and many more bodies could lie undiscovered in remote areas. A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the number of border-crossing deaths had doubled between 1995 and 2005 due to border walls and increased enforcement in urban areas. This spike in crossing deaths occurred even though there was not a corresponding increase in the number of undocumented entries. The GAO also attributed three-fourths of the doubling of deaths to an increase in the deaths occurring in the Arizona desert.

Monument to migrants who died crossing the border near Sasabe, Arizona
Monument to migrants who died crossing the border near Sasabe, Arizona (Photo by Juanita Sundberg)

The GAO's findings were presented to Congress two months before the Secure Fence Act was passed and signed into law. Despite clear evidence that existing border walls and border enforcement policy had caused thousands of deaths, Congress voted to erect more border walls. The new walls have made crossing the border today more deadly than it has ever been, and border-crossing deaths have continued to soar, even though the recent economic downturn has slowed the rate of crossing significantly. Although the Border Patrol reported a 23 percent drop in border-wide apprehensions in fiscal year 2009, a figure they use to estimate the number of undocumented entries, at least 423 bodies were recovered in FY 2009, up from 390 for FY 2008. (The Border Patrol only reports the bodies that its agents recover, not those found by others, so the total number of migrants who died border-wide could be significantly higher.) An Arizona Daily Star analysis of the bodies recovered in the Tucson Border Patrol Sector found that the risk of dying in that sector was twice as high in 2009 as in 2004, and 30 times greater than in 1998.

An Intentional Strategy

As the GAO report notes, these tragic deaths are the result of an intentional strategy to shift migrant traffic to remote areas and to take advantage of natural barriers. By walling off urban centers along the border, the Department of Homeland Security is purposely funneling migrants into remote areas where it is claimed that they can be more easily detected and apprehended by the Border Patrol. This strategy also assumes that natural barriers like the mountains east of San Diego, the desert in Arizona, and the Rio Grande in Texas, will act as deterrents to migrants, causing them to simply give up rather than attempt to enter the United States. Although the border walls coupled with increased Border Patrol staffing have succeeded in pushing migrant traffic into more remote areas, the treacherous landscape has not been an effective deterrent. Instead, hopeful migrants are forced to make riskier crossings to reach the United States, and many are dying in the process.

Vehicle barrier on the border alongside Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona
Vehicle barrier on the border alongside Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona (Photo by Sean Sullivan)

The absolute failure of this strategy has been apparent for years. The first border walls in the San Diego sector were found by the Congressional Research Service to have "little impact on overall apprehensions" between 1994 and 2005. The Migrant Policy Institute found that 97% of undocumented migrants eventually succeed in entering the United States, a number that has been unchanged since the first border walls went up in 1995. The 2006 GAO report documented the shift in migrant traffic to remote areas and the subsequent rise in the death toll. Yet border walls erected as late as 2009 were based on this failed strategy, walls which will certainly lead to many more migrant deaths in the years to come.

A Humanitarian Crisis

The people who risk their lives trekking through mountains and desert and struggling against river currents are not just migrant workers, they are often entire families, including mothers, children, and the elderly. As restrictive immigration policies have closed down avenues through which families can be reunited in the United States, more migrants have turned to undocumented crossings to bring their families together. Increasingly, the victims of the perilous journey are children. In 1990, not a single death of an immigrant minor was reported along the border. Recent studies cited in the October 2009 ACLU report, Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border have found that minors now make up 7-11% of migrants who die attempting to cross.

Sign on the Arizona border
Sign on the Arizona border

The deaths of these children, along with the other migrants who died on a lonely trail or in a swirling current, are needless tragedies. Although the U.S. government has treated these deaths as inevitable, they are instead a direct consequence of the enforcement-only policy of which the border wall is a part. Maintaining this inhumane policy constitutes an abuse of fundamental human rights, a human rights abuse that is occurring daily on U.S. soil.

No Border Wall Home
Border Wall Legislation
Migrant Deaths
Environmental Impacts
Private Property
Border Walls Do Not Work
Border Wall Designs
Along The Border
Along The Border: California
Along The Border: Arizona
Along The Border: New Mexico & West Texas
Along The Border: South Texas