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Know the West

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.)

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/photos-what-they-left-behind-no-more-deaths-found-in-the-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.