The Border Patrol is leaving migrants to die

A new report shows that the agency systematically ignores emergencies — neglecting thousands of lives.

 

In southern Arizona’s vast deserts, distances are often deceiving. A person can walk for days and not see any sign of civilization, save for the web of foot trails worn deep into the dirt, haunted by the debris of those who crossed before: rusted tuna cans, sun-weathered backpacks, empty water bottles, human skeletons. 

Over decades, the U.S. government has disfigured this spectacular terrain with the technology of war, using walls and highway checkpoints to funnel migrants deeper into the wilderness, far from help. Thousands attempt the dangerous and difficult crossing each year, and every day, people suffer painful, sometimes life-threatening backcountry emergencies — crawling for miles with blistered feet and broken limbs, drinking urine or cattle sludge to stave off dehydration, calling their families as they die alone. The agency tasked with policing this immense frontier — the U.S. Border Patrol — claims the total number of dead is roughly 8,000. The true number is likely closer to two or three times that, even as it omits the thousands of lives lost on migration trails in Mexico and those who have simply disappeared into the American Southwest. Last year — one of the hottest — was the deadliest in Arizona’s history, with 227 known and documented remains recovered in the Border Patrols Tucson Sector alone.

Volunteers patrol in the desert south of Tucson, Arizona.
Courtesy of No More Deaths

The Border Patrol is the primary and often sole government responder for Borderlands emergencies. But rather than save lives, its intervention often has the opposite effect, according to a new report by the Tucson-based migrant solidarity groups No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos — a report I helped author, as part of the work I do with No More Deaths. “When it comes to ‘emergency’ response to undocumented people crossing the border,” the report reads, “Border Patrol’s search and rescue practices normalize human disappearance as an outcome.” In the Borderlands, government emergency response services are separate, unequal and for many, simply nonexistent.

When U.S. citizens or foreign tourists are injured or lost in the Borderlands, sheriffs’ departments, first responders and crews of volunteers mobilize rapidly to save their lives. Searches often last many days and attract widespread media attention. They have a nearly 100% success rate, meaning that either the missing person is found or their remains are recovered. In stark contrast, backcountry emergencies involving undocumented border-crossers — or rather, people profiled as such, based on the language they speak, the color of their skin or both — are systematically transferred to the Border Patrol. If the missing people are profiled as undocumented border-crossers, their chances of being found drop considerably.

 “Border Patrol’s search and rescue practices normalize human disappearance as an outcome.”

In the organizations’ report — Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance — a team of researchers, writers and aid workers reviewed hundreds of emergency search and rescue cases reported to the Border Patrol in 2015 and 2016, as well as thousands of audio recordings of 911 calls transferred to the agency and obtained through a public records request. The picture that emerges is unsettling: a Border Patrol-dominated 911-response system plagued by systemic and deadly discrimination,” built to fail, and designed to let people die.

In the late 1990s, in response to the growing outcry over the rising migrant death toll resulting from U.S. policy, the Border Patrol began an increasingly aggressive public relations campaign to portray its agents as brave, life-saving humanitarians. But in more than half of the emergency cases we reviewed, the agency failed to deploy any confirmed search or rescue response at all. Far from saving peoples lives, we found that Border Patrol is more than twice as likely to cause a person to go missing — through dangerous enforcement tactics like chase and scatter” (the routine practice of using helicopters, ATVs and agents to ambush groups of migrants, causing people to get separated from their guides and end up lost and alone) — than they are to locate or rescue anyone.

“If my dad was a different person, or a citizen, I think he would have received a different search.”

“If my dad was a different person, or a citizen, I think he would have received a different search,” explains the daughter of a man who went missing while crossing the border in 2016. “At first, Border Patrol said they would help me and they tried, but they lost interest in the case very quickly. … All we want is to know what happened. If he turns up dead, if he turns up alive; we just want to know.” In at least 40% of the hundreds of cases our team reviewed, the Border Patrol was provided substantive information on the location of a distressed person, but refused to deploy a search. When the agency did respond, more than one out of every four search attempts ended in disappearance, meaning that the person was never rescued, nor were any remains located, recovered, or identified. The majority of Border Patrol searches lasted less than a day, and in some cases, less than an hour.

Such negligence is a logical extension of the agency’s prevention through deterrence” policy paradigm, perhaps best defined by historian Rachel Nolan as “a legal euphemism for leaving people to die on purpose.” The strategy, implemented in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, seals off urban entry points, engineering the intentional funneling of migrants into remote and dangerous terrain. It bears emphasizing, as many celebrate the transition to a Biden-Harris White House, that this enforcement tactic has enjoyed wide bipartisan support since it began. (Indeed, the data analyzed in Left to Die is from the years when the Obama-Biden administration oversaw the deportation of more than 3 million people, and at least 2,977 bodies were recovered from the Southwest Borderlands.)

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden sent a bill to Congress and signed a number of executive orders aimed at rolling back elements of Donald Trump’s exceptionally cruel anti-immigration agenda. Central to this more “humane” immigration plan, however, is an increase in funding for border enforcement: more militarization of border communities, more criminalization of undocumented crossers, and, ultimately, more death and suffering in the desert. Until the U.S. demilitarizes the border, decriminalizes migration and atones for its role in destabilizing Mexico and Central America, the Southwest Borderlands will remain a site of mass trauma, and thousands more will be left to die.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of known bodies recovered in the Southwest Borderlands during the Obama-Biden administration. The number is at least 2,977, not 3,362.

Max Granger is a writer and translator, and a volunteer with the migrant solidarity project No More Deaths. He is a co-author of Disappeared: How U.S. Border Enforcement Agencies are Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.