UA Binational Migration Institute Releases Study on Unauthorized Border-Crosser Deaths

Feb. 13, 2007

The Binational Migration Institute at The University of Arizona's Mexican American Studies and Research Center has issued a study of thousands of unauthorized border-crosser deaths in the United States.

Its findings include a unprecedented increase in the number of deaths each year among unauthorized border-crossers in the deserts and mountains of Southern Arizona.

Experts in the field, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), explain the increase in deaths as a direct consequence of the government's "prevention through deterrence" immigration-control policies instituted in the mid-1990s.

These policies include a quintupling of border-enforcement expenditures and a militarization of the border with new barriers, fortified checkpoints, high-tech forms of surveillance and thousands of additional Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Studies show that these funneling efforts did not decrease the number of unauthorized migrants crossing into the United States. Rather, the new strategy closed off major urban points of unauthorized migration in Texas and California and funneled hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants through Southern Arizona's remote and notoriously inhospitable deserts and mountains.

Key findings in the UA study include:

  • An exponential increase in the number of recovered bodies of unauthorized border-crossers handled by the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office from 1990 to 2005.
  • Additional evidence that U.S. border-enforcement policies did create the funnel effect and that it is indeed the primary structural cause of death for thousands of unauthorized men, women and children from Mexico, Central America and South America who have tried to enter the United States.
  • During the "pre-funnel effect" years (1990-1999), the county medical examiner's office handled, on average, the bodies of approximately 14 unauthorized border-crossers per year. In stark contrast, during the funnel effect years (2000-2005), on average, 160 bodies were sent to the medical examiner's office each year.
  • A statistically significant decrease in the number of recovered bodies of unauthorized border-crossers from Northern Mexico and a significant increase in the number of such decedents from Central and Southern Mexico.
  • At least 78 percent of the increase in known unauthorized border-crosser deaths along the entire Southwest border from 1990-2003 took place in Southern Arizona.
  • The Border Patrol criteria for counting border deaths has led to inaccurate counts of unauthorized border-crosser's deaths.
  • The number of unauthorized border crossers who have died at present is unknowable.
  • More research is needed elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border to understand the full impact of the funnel effect.

The Binational Migration Institute's study was designed specifically to measure the funnel effect created by U.S. immigration-control policies and it is the first in-depth analysis of autopsy reports produced by a medical examiner's office over a long enough period of time (1990-2005) to allow a scientific assessment of how the nature and character of such deaths have changed.

According to Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, the study's coordinator, "One of the most important policy recommendations is the urgent need for federal legislation regarding not only ways to prevent such unnecessary deaths but also standardization of the ways in which unauthorized border-crosser bodies are handled, identified and counted."

Ongoing data collection suggests that suffering and death along the U.S.-Mexico border will not come to an end anytime soon. According to the GAO there were more deaths along the border in the first 9 months of 2006 (291) than in the first 9 months of 2005 (241).

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other national and international human rights and humanitarian groups have concluded that the rising number of border-crosser deaths is "emerging as a major public health issue."

Rubio-Goldsmith has been invited to present her findings to the Council for the Institute of Mexicans Abroad (a part of Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Relations) in April and the Immigration Policy Center (Washington, D.C.) has sent the study for review by the U.S. Congress.