Border Patrol agents have not been counting the total number of migrants who’ve died attempting to cross the harsh southern borderlands, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report. Some immigrant rights advocates have estimated that as many as 10,000 migrants have died from exposure and other elements within the last two decades, a number significantly higher than what border officials have stated. The watchdog report confirms the fears of many: they just haven’t been counting them.
“Border Patrol has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths, or disclosed associated data limitations,” the office said. The Tucson sector highlighted in the report is representative of the border agency’s overall negligence.
“Border Patrol sector officials from the four sectors we contacted told us that they coordinate with external entities—such as medical examiners—when remains are discovered,” the report said. But investigators said that a collaborative effort between the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office and humanitarian organization Humane Borders, Inc. recorded higher numbers than border officials in the region.
While investigators highlight the implementation of the Missing Migrant Program in 2017 “to help rescue migrants in distress and reduce migrant deaths along the southwest border,” they note the agency “does not have a plan to evaluate the program overall.” But actions by border agents indicate that while there’s a program to aid distressed immigrants in name, the action has been continued harassment.
Take No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization with one goal: To prevent the agonizing deaths of migrants in the desert, where temperatures commonly rise into the triple digits. But the group has been repeatedly harassed by border agents throughout multiple administrations, most recently last summer. The year prior, the same tactical unit that harassed anti-police violence protesters in Portland helped raid No More Deaths’ humanitarian aid station.
This escalation began when the organization released shocking footage of grinning border agents destroying jugs of water left for migrants in the desert. Humanitarian workers had said containers were being routinely tampered with by human hands. While racist border vigilante extremists have eagerly confessed to some of the destruction, human rights groups had suspected Border Patrol as well. The footage proved them right.
“The practice of destruction of and interference with aid is not the deviant behavior of a few rogue border patrol agents, it is a systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands,” No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos said in the report. Warning: The following footage is disturbing.
It is a fact that harsh immigration policies have helped led to this tragic death toll. The common misconception is that stricter policies make a more secure border, but deterrence policies beginning in the mid-1990s have only killed migrants, by knowingly pushing them into more and more dangerous terrain. “Of course, the U.S. government knew that Prevention Through Deterrence would send people to their deaths,” researcher John Washington told Rewire’s Tina Vasquez in 2016.
“If you look at the strategic plan for Prevention Through Deterrence, it is clearly stated that they were going to use the landscape as an ally,” Washington continued in the report. “Everything that’s outlined implies greater suffering. These are people in charge of the Southwest border, of course they knew that walking for five days in these conditions would kill people.”
Earlier we noted Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program, which is supposed to aid migrants in crisis. Vasquez reported last year that advocates have led their own initiative, with a similar goal of aiding missing migrants. But she said that when advocates have fielded urgent calls to border officials, they have frequently gone ignored.
“In 63% of all distress calls referred to Border Patrol by crisis line volunteers, the agency did not conduct any confirmed search or rescue mobilization whatsoever—this includes 40% of cases where Border Patrol directly refused to take any measures in response to a life-or-death emergency.”
Count Stephen Miller’s anti-asylum Title 42 among failed border policies, experts have said. The policy, which may or may not end at the end of this month depending on a GOP-led lawsuit, has only resulted in higher apprehensions at the border. “That is because under Title 42, individuals who are expelled to Mexico within hours after apprehension can simply try again a second or third time in hopes of getting through.” And sometimes through ways that may cost them their lives.