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US Border Patrol Causes Migrant Deaths through Policy Enforcement

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translated by David Milan

Two US organizations, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos (The Human Rights Coalition), report that the policies and tactics implemented by United States Border Patrol on the border with Mexico have fed a crisis of death and disappearance of migrants who cross through areas extremely inhospitable to life.

These organizations, made up of volunteers who help migrants with food and water among other forms of support, have released a series of three reports through which they seek “to expose and combat those US government policing tactics that cause the crisis of death and mass disappearance [of undocumented migrants] in the borderlands,” according to their official website.

The first document, published in 2016, details the policy that backs up Border Patrol in pushing migrants to the edge of death. It began in 1994 and is called “prevention through deterrence.”

This policy justified the militarization of urban zones along the US-Mexico border. According to the first report, titled Deadly Apprehension Methods: The Consequences of Chase & Scatter in the Wilderness, the objective was to push migrants away from official ports of entry towards geographically more remote and dangerous regions, driving them towards death.

In their investigations, these volunteers explain that “Border Patrol agents chase border crossers through the remote terrain and utilize the landscape as a weapon to slow down, injure, and apprehend them.” They add that “chases lead to heat exhaustion and dehydration, blisters and sprains, injuries due to falls, and drownings.”

The activists have had contact with hundreds of migrants and documented the experiences they have lived through while crossing the border. They conducted a survey which concluded that “tackles, beatings, Tasers, dog attacks, and assault with vehicles were all reportedly employed by the Border Patrol against border crossers during chase.”

Taking the Water from the Fish

In the second report, published in 2018, the organizations detail the practices employed by Border Patrol to reduce subsistence possibilites for migrants they don’t manage to capture. One of these is the destruction of humanitarian aid offerings that the volunteers leave on migrant trails. “In the desert of the Arizona–Mexico borderlands, where thousands of people die of dehydration and heat-related illness, Border Patrol agents are destroying gallons of water intended for border crossers,” states the report. “Border Patrol agents stab, stomp, kick, drain, and confiscate the bottles of water that humanitarian-aid volunteers leave along known migrant routes in the Arizona desert.”

According to the activists, these actions are systemic across the agency, not isolated. The agents “routinely intimidate, harass, and surveil humanitarian-aid volunteers,” calling into question “the Border Patrol’s own claims to be humanitarian.” Interference with aid “is a systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands and a logical extension of the broader strategy of Prevention Through Deterrence,” claims the report.

The organizations state that according to the guidelines of this policy, “anything that makes the journey more dangerous or difficult for border crossers could be considered a reasonable tactic for enforcement, including the vandalization of safe drinking water.”

Since 2012, No More Deaths and other organizations have distributed thousands of gallons of water along the trails of undocumented migrants. Due to the length and difficulty of the journey, “it is physically impossible for anyone attempting to cross the border on foot to carry enough water and food supplies to survive. As a result, thousands of border crossers have died of thirst in the open desert.”

911 Doesn’t Work for Those Crossing the Border

The third part in the series, published in February 2021 and titled Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance, details how 911 response systems receive thousands of calls per year from people making unauthorized crossings into the United States and send them on to Border Patrol.

This agency is the one responsible for responding to emergency calls made through 911. However, the activists report that the majority of migrants who manage to make calls for help receive no aid, because they are presumed to be undocumented. “In 63% of all distress calls that families and advocates referred to Border Patrol, the agency did not conduct any confirmed search or rescue mobilization whatsoever,” states the document.

The report states that Border Patrol in effect has all decision-making power over emergency services for those attempting to cross which is to say, it’s in their hands whether undocumented migrants live or die. “The US Border Patrol is not a search and rescue organization. On the contrary, the agency is a massive, militarized federal police force that dedicates over 99% of its annual budget and over 99% of its personnel to support border enforcement activities.”

The organizations that worked on these three reports included a long series of recommendations directed towards government agencies, above all, border demilitarization and the immediate end of Border Patrol’s role as the only agency to respond to reported emergencies. “We call on government agencies to establish borderlands emergency response systems that are fully separate from immigration enforcement. Such response systems must be timely and well-funded, with a front line of medical responders and trained search and rescue teams who will scan the landscape with an empathetic eye rather than a punitive one,” they recommend in the third report.

They also demand that “the federal government must establish initiative(s) independent from border enforcement to centralize and publicize tracking of migration-related recovered human remains borderwide.”

The organizations’ research showed that Border Patrol maintained an official count of 7,805 remains recovered between 1998 and 2019; however, states the report, “our team estimates that three to ten times as many people may have died or disappeared since the implementation of Prevention through Deterrence.”

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