Blog post by Ryan Miller, a graduate student at American University

The United States (US) current border policies and enforcement continuously sacrifice the personal safety of immigrants, which has led to record-breaking deaths of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Without an efficient and effective pathway to legal authorization to work and live in the US, thousands of migrants fleeing humanitarian crises in their countries of origin are encountering another crisis at the US southern border.

US border policy is defined by deterrence, which uses detention and deportation to try and reduce immigration. Indirectly, deterrence puts countless immigrants in dangerous situations as they attempt to migrant to the US, such as this last June when 51 refugees died in a tractor-trailer near San Antonio, Texas. Directly, border practices are responsible for causing record-breaking deaths of refugees and migrants across the US southern border.[i] Although there is plentiful evidence that indicates deterrence does not reduce rates of unauthorized immigrants nor immigration, enforcement policies at the border are accountable for record-breaking fatalities of migrants.[ii] In short, US migration deterrence leads to migrant deaths.

In 2022, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has  already recorded its highest number of migrant deaths at the US southern border in a single year, finding 605 migrant remains. Despite environmental exposure being the leading cause of death, border patrol agents continue to destroy life-saving parcels of food and water that are placed in the US southwest by sympathetic citizens.[iii]Additionally, an increasing number of deaths are “CBP-related” fatalities that accounted for 151 deaths in 2021. These deaths include migrants in CBP custody, at a CBP checkpoint, or while evading CBP personnel.[iv] The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has reported that since 2014, nearly 3,000 people have gone missing or died attempting to cross from Mexico into the US. The deaths of migrants on US soil or in US custody are all preventable deaths that US border policies and enforcement continue to facilitate rather than prevent.

US border policies are indirectly responsible for many more immigrant deaths because of the absence of a safe alternative to legal authorization. For example, the deadliest human trafficking event in US history, in which 51 refugees died near San Antonio, Texas, was a direct result of human smuggling. However, in relation to this event, both the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have restated how “without sufficient pathways to safety, vulnerable and desperate people will continue to be preyed upon by smugglers or forced to resort to desperate measures to cross borders”.[v]

The demographics of immigration to the US has been changing to reflect a group more characterized by refugees fleeing from humanitarian crisis in Northern Triangle countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. From 2009 to 2019, the detainment of migrants at the southern border who originated from the Northern Triangle region rose from 7.2% to 73.7% of total apprehensions. These refugees are fleeing from conditions that US military and market interventions contributed to during the Cold War, such as chronic criminal violence, political instability, and economic uncertainty.[vi] As these refugees escape from humanitarian crises caused by US policies, they encounter another crisis facilitated by US policies at the southern border, where it is estimated that one migrant dies per day just in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The US government is not only responsible for historical actions that influence the numbers of incoming refugees and migrants, but they are also responsible for putting desperate migrants into dangerous positions by lacking safe, sufficient pathways to legal authorization.

Among the reasons that the US government uses to legitimate their current border policies, the protection of men, women, and children’s lives is not among them. The destruction of humanitarian aid at the border and hundreds of “CBP-related” deaths are simply two ways that US border policies are lethal to thousands of vulnerable refugees and migrants. Despite record-breaking migrant fatalities on US soil and no evidence that deterrence decreases migration flows, US border policies continue to facilitate a worsening humanitarian crises at the border. Simultaneously, the lengthy and uncertain path to legal authorization that refugees and immigrants face incentivizes them to seek alternative, riskier methods to enter the US. If the deaths of migrants trying to attain a better life was a concern for the US federal and state governments, they would reform existing immigration policies at the border to pave a safer path for hopeful migrants to work and live in the US.







The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.