Government policies funneling illegal immigrants into more dangerous crossing areas have contributed to fatalities.

By George Joseph

In July, a sweltering tractor trailer ride in Texas became the latest harrowing example of the perils of crossing the U.S. border illegally. From the hospital, one survivor told authorities that he had paid smugglers to get him across the Rio Grande and then cram him on a northbound truck with what he guessed were nearly 100 people. The survivor managed to keep breathing in the pitch black trailer without food or water. But when the doors were opened in a San Antonio Walmart parking lot, eight migrants were dead, their bodies “lying on the floor like meat,” the truck’s driver subsequently said. Another two expired later.

Those 10 deaths are among the 255 known migrant fatalities recorded by the International Organization for Migration in the first eight months of 2017. That’s up from 240 in the same period last year. Experts aren’t certain what’s causing the recent increase; verifying numbers is inherently difficult when it comes to an endeavor whose very mission is to avoid detection by the authorities.

However, academics and the U.S. Border Patrol largely agree on the long-term trends, which reveal a clear pattern. Between 1998 and 2016, the number of unauthorized border-crossers who were captured — which is viewed as the best proxy for the rate of illegal crossings — has plunged 70 percent in the southwest U.S. border region, according to data from the Border Patrol. During that same period, yearly immigrant deaths have risen some 20 percent. (The increase in death rate, which was steady for many years, was interrupted for several years by a temporary surge in migrants from Central America, which we’ll explain, only to resume its upward march.)

The result is a significant increase in the chances of dying in an illegal border crossing over the past two decades. A key cause: efforts by the Border Patrol to push migrants away from easy-to-cross, hard-to-police urban corridors and into barren, isolated terrain. That’s the conclusion of “Why Border Enforcement Backfired,” a 2016 paper whose lead author, Douglas Massey, is a professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the cofounder of the Mexican Migration Project. A spokesman for the Border Patrol echoed the view that the change in policy contributed to the increase in deaths (but disagreed that the policy backfired).

If somebody had been trying to slip across the border through Texas in the early ’90s, he might have just forded a narrow canal or hopped a chain-link fence from Juarez into El Paso. Back then, the vast majority of unauthorized crossings followed easy routes into big cities like El Paso or San Diego, where illegal immigrants could, to the frustration of authorities, quickly blend into the local population. Border deaths were relatively rare, said Daniel Martinez, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and a researcher on a project called the Migrant Border Crossing Study.

Things began to change when the Clinton administration, seeking to burnish its tough-on-illegal-immigrant credentials, swelled the Border Patrol’s ranks and adopted a strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence. The initiative, adopted in 1994, clamped down on popular crossing routes through San Diego and El Paso.

The document laying out the strategy at the time predicted that “with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” Migrant flow would shift to sectors in South Texas and Tucson, it anticipated, while acknowledging that “illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.”

That’s precisely what happened when the administration implemented Prevention Through Deterrence. Starting in the mid-’90s, the Border Patrol effectively sealed off the well-traveled crossing paths of the San Diego and El Paso Border Patrol sectors. From 1998 to 2008, deaths in these sectors — which had hovered between 20 and 40 annually — tailed off, eventually dropping to a handful in recent years.

Tens of thousands of migrants began shifting to lengthier, more dangerous, unpopulated routes, according to experts. The location of many fatalities shifted accordingly.

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