In 1994, President Bill Clinton authorized a prevention through deterrence strategy as a part of Operation Gatekeeper to redistribute border security, heightening its presence in urban areas in the hopes of deterring undocumented immigration.
As the security presence along major entry corridors increased, many migrants were forced to cross the lethal Arizona desert to flee in hopes of a better life in America. This strategy did not decrease migration rates, rather it increased the number of migrants who died while attempting to enter the United States.
In the 1994 Beyond Border strategic plan, the dangers of traversing the desert are considered, yet the report assumes that this will deter migration.
“Temperatures ranging from sub-zero along the northern border to the searing heat of the southern border effect illegal entry traffic as well as enforcement efforts,” the plan says. “Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.”
While the plan hoped to deter undocumented immigration through natural barriers, it failed. Instead of deterring migrants, the strategy ended up labeling more migrants as criminals therefore increasing undocumented immigration as well as causing the deaths of thousands of migrants as they attempted to cross the border.
Since the plan, thousands of people have died attempting to cross the U.S. border, and according to reports from CNN and USA Network, the Border Patrol has been undercounting the number of deaths each year. While the Border Patrol accounted for 7,805 deaths along the border between the fiscal years of 1998 and 2019, the total deaths each year are likely much higher.
In 2017, the USA Today Network spent nine months attempting to build an accurate and complete count of border-crosser deaths from the Southern border from 2012-2016. After sifting through information from sheriffs, medical examiners, county documents and justices, the Network’s investigation found that hundreds of border deaths were not included in the official U.S Border Patrol’s official reports.
The USA Today Network’s investigation found in three of the border states (California, New Mexico and Arizona) between 25 and 300 percent more migrant deaths than were reported over the four years. A CNN investigation released in 2018 reported that the network had identified at least 564 more deaths over the last 16 years. Even these numbers are an underestimate of the actual number of border-crosser deaths, as the vast desert prevents experts from locating every single body.
In 2009, the official Border Patrol death count reached 420 deaths for the fiscal year, leading the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to release an official report in collaboration with Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights. The report called the over-5,000 migrant deaths on the border a “humanitarian crisis.”
The power to protect territories and defend citizenry “is restricted and constrained by international obligations to respect fundamental human rights,” the ACLU report states. “Unfortunately, these restraints have not precluded the U.S. government from deploying deadly border enforcement policies and practices that, by design and by default, lead to at least one death every day of a migrant crossing the border.”