Border Deaths Are Increasing
Rise Is Despite Fewer Crossers, U.S. and Mexican Groups Say

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Despite a 50 percent drop over the past two years in the number of people caught illegally entering the United States from Mexico, the number of those who died while trying to cross the border increased this year and is the highest since 2006, according to new U.S. data and a study by human rights groups in both countries.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Mexico's human rights agency allege that consistently high numbers of border deaths -- hovering around 350 to 500 a year, depending on which government's figures are used -- are a predictable but largely unrecognized result of border security policies.

"Border deaths have increased despite the economic downturn, fewer migrant crossers, and a steady drop in apprehensions," Mexico's National Human Rights Commission and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties in California say in a report set for release Wednesday and obtained by The Washington Post. The rising fatality rates "signal an escalating humanitarian crisis that is not going away and requires more effective governmental responses," the groups say.

The findings come as immigrants' advocates increase pressure on Washington to overhaul immigration policies. The administration has signaled its willingness to consider measures that would increase the flow of legal workers and to legalize many of those already here, which some analysts say could reduce illegal crossings.

Until Congress acts, however, the ACLU and Mexico's commission, known by its Spanish acronym CNDH, recommend that both countries prioritize reducing border deaths in bilateral talks, shift border patrol resources to search and rescue, and allow humanitarian groups to do relief work in border areas. The groups also urge that both countries set up a joint 911-type missing persons system run by a non-governmental organization, standardize data collection on deaths and invite international involvement.

Arturo Sarukhán, Mexican ambassador to the United States, called the deaths along the border "a matter of utmost concern," citing both countries' efforts to avoid fatalities and to "break the back" of human smuggling operations. However, he added in a written statement, "at the end of the day, a secure, orderly, legal and humane flow of migrants will be the only solution to this challenge."

David Hoffman, chief of the strategic planning, policy and analysis division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Washington has taken many steps to reduce border deaths under a 1998 national border safety strategy, identifying dangerous areas with the Mexican government and adding rescue beacons in some areas.

"Every death is a tragedy," Hoffman said, adding that the Border Patrol has rescued nearly 11,000 illegal crossers in the past six years. "If there are shortfalls, if there are things we can do better, we are open to doing that," he said.

The debate over border deaths is drawing renewed attention to a long-standing complaint by human rights groups, one eclipsed lately by the explosion of drug-related violence prompted by Mexico's assault on drug cartels since 2006, which has killed more than 12,000 people in that country.

Analysts have long acknowledged that a U.S. crackdown begun in 1994 in California and Texas increased the hazards for illegal immigrants by driving border crossers from urban centers such as San Diego and El Paso into more remote areas.

The strategy, reflected in plans with names such as Operation Gatekeeper, was intended to focus Border Patrol personnel in places where illegal crossers could disappear quickly into neighborhoods, reasoning that authorities would have more time to catch people trekking through the desert and that the difficulty of such crossings would be a deterrent.

The enforcement push, however, has channeled migrants to places such as Arizona, increasing the number of deaths in the region's inhospitable mountain ranges, Indian reservations, military proving grounds and cactus-filled wilderness.

In the 15 years since the United States began beefing up patrols along the 2,000-mile border, deaths have occurred at a rate of one every 24 hours, the human rights report alleges. Citing Mexico's foreign ministry and media sources, the rights groups say that at least 5,607 deaths occurred between 1994 and 2008.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol has reported 4,111 deaths in border areas since 1998, not counting those reported first to local authorities.

Meanwhile, the number of people apprehended while crossing the border has dropped steeply. Border Patrol arrests for the year ending Sept. 30 are on track to drop about 23 percent, a precipitous decline that follows a 27 percent drop the year before. Through Aug. 31, the Border Patrol reported 519,394 apprehensions, the lowest number since the early 1970s, and less than half the 2005 level of 1.2 million.

Officials credit the decrease to the economic downturn and increased enforcement. The number of fatalities, however, is on pace to climb slightly this year. Hoffman said Customs and Border Protection is reporting 416 deaths in 2009 so far, compared with 390 last year, 398 in 2007, 454 in 2006 and 492 in 2005, the decade's peak.

Human rights groups say that U.S. agencies typically undercount deaths because of inconsistent classification standards. The CNDH and ACLU report faults governments in both countries, with report author Maria Jiminez saying they lack standards and centralized means to identify, recover and prepare the dead for burial, determine cause of death, and notify next of kin.