2013-06-25 07:10:00

Border Protection Decision May Increase Border Deaths

Yesterday’s senate border security decision to increase the size of the Border Patrol by 20,000 agents, add 700 miles of fence, and deploy $3.2 billion in military equipment is likely to increase border deaths if current Border Patrol policies are continued. Most media coverage of the senate agreement and on the increasing deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands does not examine the ways in which Border Patrol policies and actions contribute directly to the high number of deaths on the border this year. For example, last week’s LA Times article titled, “In 30 days, Border Patrol rescues 177 people from Arizona desert,” leaves out crucial background details related to the ways in which Border Patrol policies directly contribute to rising numbers of deaths on the border.

Between 2003 and 2005, I spent 18 months migrating with undocumented Mexican farm workers in the United States and Mexico. As part of this fieldwork, I took part in a border crossing beginning in southern Mexico and ending in a border patrol jail in Arizona after I and the undocumented Mexican migrants I accompanied were apprehended trekking through the border. My Mexican migrant companions were deported back to Mexico and I was released with a citation for crossing the border without going through customs. In addition, I recorded interviews and conversations with undocumented immigrants crossing the border, border patrol agents, border activists, borderland residents, and armed civilian vigilantes.

During the border crossing in which I participated, our group experienced many of the harsh conditions related to border crossing deaths and their increase over the past 20 plus years. I crossed with nine healthy young men returning to the United States to be with their families or to send money back to Mexico to allow their extended families there to survive. We trekked for close to 24 hours through the desert from northern Mexico into southern Arizona, through sand, cacti, and dried up creek beds. Most of the older migrants and migrants with small children cross through longer stretches of the border, taking three to five days, in order to avoid the possibility of apprehension by the Border Patrol.

Our group experienced continuous extreme heat and encountered spiny cacti, rattlesnakes, and scorpions in the pitch-black night. I drank through a gallon of water every few hours as we hiked faster than I have ever moved for an extended period of time. I carried five gallons of water and several bottles of Gatorade and Pedialyte. We wondered if the other people we came across wearing dark-colored clothing were assailants after our money or other people trying to cross the border. While I knew the border crossing would be dangerous, I was repeatedly surprised and amazed by the extreme danger and risk in the borderlands.

Every year, hundreds of people die in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Most deaths are due to dehydration and heat stroke, though snake bites, automobile accidents, and violent assaults also happen regularly. According to the new study, “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border,” released this month by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute, border deaths have been on the rise over the past several plus years. The increase in border deaths has been noted also by several other academic scholars and independent humanitarian organizations.

Over the past several years, the Border Patrol has enacted several individual projects together under a policy known as “prevention through deterrence.” This general policy intends to concentrate Border Patrol activity in the safer areas of the border in order to direct migrants to more dangerous areas in hopes that less people will end up crossing. Unfortunately, this policy has been shown by several researchers – including in the new Binational Migration Institute report – to have contributed directly to the increase in deaths on the border. On some level, it only makes sense that directing human beings to more and more dangerous areas will lead to more risk of deaths.

Importantly, statements by Border Patrol and other government officials have shown their knowledge that “prevention through deterrence” would lead to increased suffering and death on the border. In this way, the Border Patrol has knowingly contributed to more and more people dying in the desert. On some level, the dangerous conditions my companions and I experienced in the borderlands were partially the result of where the Border Patrol policy encourages and discourages people to cross.

Media coverage must show not only the ways in which the Border Patrol has rescued people from the desert, but also the ways in which this agency’s policies and actions have put many of those people at extreme risk in the first place. It is important for Americans (including readers of the LA Times and other news sources) to know both aspects of the relationship between Border Patrol activities and the increasing deaths on the border. In this way, the American public and policy makers can more accurately assess the benefits and significant drawbacks of current debates on border security.

In addition, it is critical for the Border Patrol to re-consider their current policies, including “prevention through deterrence” and the increasing militarization of the border that directs people into more and more deadly areas. The details of where and how the additional agents and military technology will be deployed by the Border Patrol has yet to be worked out. If the “prevention through deterrence” policy of knowingly putting migrants in harms way is continued, yesterday’s senate agreement to increase the human and technological force of the Border Patrol is likely to continue this high level of death in the borderlands. Rather, the Border Patrol must do its work to protect the border without knowingly putting human lives in danger. Finally, the U.S. government must work toward equal global development such that undocumented immigration is not experienced as the only option for so many people seeking to cross international borders.

Seth M. Holmes, Ph.D., M.D. is an assistance professor in the School of Public Health and Graduate Program in Medical Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley. He is the author of Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.

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