Tucson, Arizona – As immigration reform debates run hot on Capitol Hill, many members of Congress say a more secure border has to be part of any bill they approve. One of those is Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the “Gang of Eight” of bipartisan lawmakers pushing reform.
But authors of a just-released report on deaths of undocumented migrants in south-central Arizona argue that increased border security may lead to more people perishing.
“A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border,” published by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute and released on June 5, analyzes the trends and demographics of people who died in south-central Arizona from 1990 through 2012 after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization.
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The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson – which investigates the highest number of migrant deaths in the country and handles more unidentified remains per capita than any other medical examiner’s office in the United States – provided the statistics on the deaths of undocumented border crossers for the area.
Although the U.S. Border Patrol reported steep drops in undocumented-migrant apprehensions during the past few years – a period of significant increases in immigration enforcement by U.S. authorities – the report points out that the number of deaths of undocumented migrants peaked in 2010. The numbers dropped only slightly in 2011 and 2012.
“We’re missing the point. The answers don’t lie in border security. The answers lie in understanding the economics [that drive migration],” said Daniel E. Martínez, an assistant professor of sociology at George Washington University and one of the report authors.
Martínez said those factors are usually a combination of poverty and political instability in other countries, along with demand for inexpensive labor in the United States.
The locations of the 2,238 bodies discovered in south-central Arizona from 1990 through 2012 are mapped in the report: Red dots smother hundred-mile swaths, taking in not only uninhabited scrublands and wildlife refuges but areas near Phoenix and Tucson suburbs as well.
During the 22-year period, the lowest number of undocumented-migrant deaths recorded in the area was five during the federal fiscal year of 1992 (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30). The number of deaths reached a high of 225 in 2010.
The high numbers of deaths in the last few years coincide with massive enforcement pushes by federal authorities along the U.S.-Mexico border, which, they say, have reduced the number of undocumented people trying to enter the United States.
The report’s authors argue that the federal government’s moves – building formidable border fences and strengthening manpower along the border – directly contributed to the spike in deaths as undocumented migrants tried to find ways around stepped-up border security.
The report acknowledges that the high number of deaths could be due partly to the increase in the Border Patrol’s “boots on the ground” approach, resulting in more remote areas being searched and more bodies found. Still, the fact that the number of deaths has remained high for more than a decade is a good indication that more undocumented migrants are dying since enforcement has increased.
“People are being pushed into ever more remote areas,” said Robin C. Reineke, an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona. “They’re taking long, dangerous treks through the desert, and they’re dying in high numbers.”
From the deceased that the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office was able to identify – about one-third could not be identified – the average undocumented migrant was a 30-year-old man from Mexico.
Over the past few years, however, the number of Central Americans – mainly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – has steadily increased.
Most of the undocumented border crossers – 46 percent – died from exposure, mainly desert heat. The cause of death of 36 percent could not be determined.
The report ends with the authors’ hope that Washington, D.C., “policymakers will consider the data presented in this report as they debate what is arguably the single most important piece of immigration legislation in nearly three decades.”
One of those authors, Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, doesn’t seem hopeful. Rubio-Goldsmith is an adjunct professor of Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona.
“We don’t call this a disaster in a legal sense,” she said of the deceased migrants. “But we are dealing with a disaster. …It’s something the politicians don’t like to talk about. How many people in Washington are talking about deaths on the border? I don’t think that comes up a lot.”
Juanita Molina, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Border Action Network, said the study shows the need for a change in government policy as well as border patrol tactics. Her organization supports these changes. In addition, the group has provided large water barrels in areas where high numbers of deaths have occurred.
Back when the federal government’s enforcement crackdown started, “The Border Patrol … imagined that the desert would be a natural barrier that people wouldn’t cross,” Molina said. “They underestimated the level of desperation and need of the people crossing the desert.”