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In the mid-1990’s the U.S. government began implementing immigration enforcement strategies that targeted heavy surveillance and personnel at traditional and safe entry points along the U.S.-Mexico border, funneling people into the most remote and dangerous areas of the borderlands. These policies were based on a theory of “prevention through deterrence” that claimed, incorrectly, that people would be deterred from migrating to the U.S. if the act of undocumented immigration was both heavily criminalized and made deadly.

One of the first articulations of this strategy can be found in the 1994 U.S. Border Patrol Strategic Plan where the architects publicly acknowledged that these new policies would use the geography of the border as an ally. The militarization of traditional crossing points pushed people to cross in areas where “mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers to passage.” The strategic plan also spoke about “the searing heat of the southern border” and admitted that “[people] crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.”

Perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of this document is where the planners outline their assumptions for what would happen as a direct result of this new enforcement strategy. One of their key assumptions states that “violence will increase as effects of strategy are felt.”

In that prediction, they were tragically correct. In the years immediately following the beginning of “prevention through deterrence” policies, the U.S.-Mexico border became one of the most dangerous in the world for migrating people, though not in the ways that people generally understand “violence.” Just as the government understood, the geography and environment of the remote borderlands, particularly the desert of Southern Arizona, were deadly for those who were now attempting to cross through these regions. Extreme weather, arduous paths, inhospitable flora, hostile wildlife, and vast expanses that take days and weeks to traverse meant that many people did not, and do not, survive. Conditions of poverty, inequality, and violence worsened in countries in Latin America and deterrence policies failed to understand or address this larger picture. As a consequence, thousands of people have died.

Between 1990 and 1999, the average number of migrant deaths in Southern Arizona was 12 per year. Following “prevention through deterrence”, between 2000 to 2017, that average rose to 157 people per year. The average along the entire border during the same time period is at least 372 people per year.

U.S. Border Patrol reports that 7,216 remains have been recovered along the entire border between 1998 and 2017. This number is considered by many experts to be a low estimate of the actual number of deaths that have occurred along the border. In Southern Arizona, there have been more than 2,939 deaths over the last two decades. In the map below, you can visually witness the overwhelming scale of this crisis. Each red dot represents the GPS coordinates where a set of remains were found.

Forensic anthropologists and medical examiners along the border, like our partners at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, Arizona, have worked tirelessly to identify the individuals who have died and return them to their families. Despite their rigorous examinations, there are more than 1,000 people who are still unidentified in Southern Arizona. Due to fragmented data, that number is unknown along the entire border, but likely equals or exceeds the count in Southern Arizona.

The sharp rise in deaths and disappearances can be directly attributed to the militarization policies put in place on the border over the last two decades. These policies are the same ones that continue today. They devalue human life and violate human rights by putting people at risk of death and placing families in the uniquely traumatic position of searching for a loved one missing on an international border.

The devastation created by this loss of life is compounded by the limited resources available to families searching for people last seen crossing the border. Since 2006, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights has collected more than 3,000 missing persons reports from families desperately looking for answers. These families live in states throughout the U.S. and in countries throughout Latin America. As a result of various marginalizing factors including immigration and economic status, they are overwhelmingly shut out from many of the traditional avenues to search for a missing person. Families suffer each day a loved one is missing. Some of these families have been searching for decades. Their situation is made worse by the difficult realities of navigating intricate legal systems, overcoming language barriers, and risking the pain of deportation and abuse. For these families, information is justice.

The same deadly and inhumane enforcement policies that began in the 1990’s continue to expand today, accompanied by other “prevention through deterrence” strategies such as frequent ICE raids in communities throughout the country, and the continuation of inhumane prosecution, detention and deportation practices, all of which define immigrants through a dehumanizing criminal lens. Each one of these strategies serves to traumatize and terrorize immigrant communities with the expressed purpose of “deterring undocumented immigration”. To our mind’s, there is no justifiable reason to violate human rights.

Sadly, ours is a world where the political and cultural narrative around undocumented immigration is one characterized by misconception and discrimination. The policies that have led to the deaths of thousands of people were created in an environment where immigrants are rarely viewed as anything beyond “criminal”, which in turn means that the mistreatment of immigrants is made invisible from most peoples’ view. This is a global phenomenon, with the death and disappearance of migrating peoples being one of the greatest human rights crises unfolding in United States, Mexico and Central America, Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, and various other regions throughout the world. However, the response from governments has been to double down on the same restrictive and criminalizing policies that formed this crisis.

As Dr. Agnes Callamard of the UN wrote in a report about the deaths and disappearances of migrants, “Governments around the world know that people will die attempting to cross dangerous border regions, including deserts, rivers and seas. Here the conflict between human rights and migration control could not be clearer: migrants are supposed to be deterred from crossing a border because they might die. It is impossible to protect the right to life while simultaneously attempting to deter entry by endangering life.”

We echo the calls of every advocate for a creation of an immigration system that protects human rights and human lives above all else.



Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner data on undocumented border crosser deaths, 2017

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data on migrant deaths along the southern border, 2017

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond 

Map, Humane Borders