The June 2022 deaths of 53 people, victims of heat stroke, in the back of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, show the dangers of crossing the U.S. southern border without authorization.
Such fatalities result from two intersecting phenomena. One is the massive growth in the federal government’s policing system in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since the mid-1990s. The other is the strong and profoundly unequal ties between the United States and the home countries of most unauthorized – or undocumented – migrants.
‘Prevention Through Deterrence’
Since 1994, when I began to research the roots and impacts of U.S. border and immigration enforcement, U.S.-Mexico border policing has radically changed. Beginning during Bill Clinton’s presidency, this transformation has involved infusing massive amounts of resources – in the form of personnel, technology and infrastructure – into a multifaceted system of border control.
The number of Border Patrol agents has grown from roughly 4,200 in 1994 to more than 20,000 today. Typically, 80% to 90% of them are stationed in the U.S. Southwest. Spending has increased as well. In 1994, the Border Patrol’s budget was US$400 million. In 2021, it was $4.9 billion – an approximately 700% increase in inflation-adjusted dollars in less than 30 years.
Complementing the growth is a federal border policing strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence. Introduced in 1994, the strategy concentrates policing personnel, surveillance technology and infrastructure in and around border cities and towns. Its goal is to push unauthorized migrants into remote areas characterized by harsh and dangerous terrain, forcing people to abandon their efforts to reach the United States.
U.S. officials anticipated that unauthorized border crossings “would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.” Instead, the deterrence policy has compelled migrants to take ever greater risks, resulting in more deaths.
Another dangerous method of unauthorized entry, as seen in San Antonio, involves cramming people into poorly ventilated spaces like the back of a truck. The hope is to transport them across the border and into the U.S. interior undetected by authorities.
The official death tolls cited above are likely severe undercounts. They are based on bodies or human remains that are retrieved. But many corpses are never recovered because of the region’s arduous terrain and enormous size: The U.S.-Mexico boundary is about 2,000 miles long. A combination of bodily decomposition and the scattering of remains by animals further exacerbates the undercounting problem.
The Border Patrol has also failed to include thousands of fatalities in its official counts. According to an April 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, Customs and Border Protection “has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths or disclosed limitations with the data it has reported.”
Source: El Universal