WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Apr 2013 | Commentary | News

The Alarming Rise of Migrant Deaths on U.S. Soil—And What to Do About It

At the end of March, the U.S. Border Patrol quietly posted to its site a new set of statistics that depict a developing humanitarian emergency on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Charted here are remains of migrants found each year in each of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border. Once they make it over the border, an alarming number of undocumented migrants are dying of exposure, dehydration, or drowning in U.S. territory.

Of the 15 years of data given, 2012 saw the second-highest number of migrant remains found in U.S. territory. There were 463, which is equivalent to five migrants dying every four days.

Only in 2005 were there more migrant deaths (492). But in that year, Border Patrol captured more than three times as many migrants as it did in 2012. The migrant population was far larger, but the number of deaths was similar. A much larger fraction of the migrant population is dying today.

A big reason is tightened U.S. border security, which has led people to attempt the crossing in ever more remote, treacherous, and risky border zones—often, desert wildernesses very far from population centers.

For the past decade, the most deadly of Border Patrol’s nine sectors has been Tucson, Arizona, which has also led all sectors in captured migrants. But that may be changing.

Last year saw a spike in southern Texas, in the Laredo and Rio Grande Valley (McAllen-Brownsville) sectors. The latter sector also saw a doubling in captures of migrants from Central America last year; it is likely that more than half of the dead were citizens of Central America, not Mexico.

The situation is worsening rapidly: between October and February 2013, Border Patrol found the remains of a staggering 70 human bodies in the Rio Grande Valley sector alone.

More migrants’ lives could be saved with a few inexpensive adjustments in water availability, rescue beacons, and search-and-rescue capability. A directive by the Department of Homeland Security for the Border Patrol to establish water drums, particularly alongside rescue beacons, would be an important step to avoid preventable deaths on U.S. soil. Increasing the number of rescue beacons, as well as providing additional funds to expand Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue Unit teams (BORSTAR), particularly in southwest border sectors with high numbers of migrant deaths, could also help to assist migrants in distress.

Many of the recovered remains of migrants, which now number in the thousands, are unidentified. Local officials in Brooks County, Texas, estimate that the costs of dealing with the unidentified dead, including mortician fees and autopsies, amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. No unified procedure exists to process remains and DNA samples of bodies found in the border region. Many remains have not had their DNA sampled, and there has been no consolidated effort to match the DNA of unidentified remains with family members searching for missing loved ones.

Measures such as the following would greatly contribute to identifying these remains and provide answers to family members of missing migrants about the whereabouts of their loved ones:

  • Providing federal funding to counties and tribal governments for the handling and DNA analysis of migrant remains;
  • Creating a Missing Migrants program within the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs); and
  • Encouraging genetic laboratories receiving federal grant monies to process samples from unidentified remains and compare the resulting genetic profiles against samples from the relatives of missing migrants

Immigration reform legislation currently before the U.S. Senate (S. 744) includes billions of dollars in new funding for border security. It makes no mention, however, of steps to prevent needless deaths of migrants on U.S. soil, or to help cash-strapped counties identify the dead. The current bill offers an important legislative opportunity to stem the rise of this alarming human tragedy on the U.S. side of the border.

Photo: Tucson’s Coalición de los Derechos Humanos builds a cross for each human body recovered in the desert.


Additional resources from WOLA’s Border Security and Migration Project