Activists want better migrant death counts
SAN DIEGO – Flying low over the Sonoran Desert, Border Patrol agents spotted a skeleton sprawled in the brush.
The harsh terrain just inside Arizona is a busy trafficking corridor for illegal immigrants; the person could have died while trying to sneak into the United States. But busy Interstate 8 runs nearby – the person could have been a slain U.S. citizen, a suicide, a runaway.
The Border Patrol is grappling with just how to count the dead found along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s rarely a cut-and-dry decision,” said Joe Brigman, spokesman for Yuma Border Patrol. “In some cases, you just don’t know.”
Clues and documents found on the body east of Yuma let agents conclude the victim was indeed an immigrant – among 325 the Border Patrol counted in the fiscal year which ended Sept. 30, down from 340 the year before.
The agency says that its increased vigilance has helped reduce deaths among illegal immigrants.
Human rights activists say it’s in the government’s interest to keep that number low. They contend the agency tries to shave its count by excluding many skeletal remains, car-accident victims and bodies discovered by local law enforcement agencies.
Claudia Smith, a San Diego attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, says the ad hoc counting methods lack consistency from one government agency to the next – and even sometimes from one Border Patrol sector to another.
For instance, in Arizona, the busiest stretch for illegal entries, migrants died in record numbers for the third straight year in fiscal 2004. The Border Patrol reported 177 deaths, the highest death toll ever for a single state. But medical examiner’s offices in Arizona put the toll even higher – about 221 deaths.
Andy Adame, spokesman for the Tucson Border Patrol sector, said local law enforcement agencies do not always notify the Border Patrol when they handle the death of a possible illegal immigrant.
Activists also blame the lack of a consistent tabulation strategy for the Border Patrol, which has 11,141 agents nationwide. Agents in Tucson, for instance, say they do not count the deaths of smugglers or guides.
“We count someone who is furthering their entry into the United States,” Adame said in a telephone interview. “And we feel smugglers and guides are just going back and forth, so they aren’t counted.”
Border Patrol officials in Washington, D.C., however, say it has been standard policy to include smugglers since 1998, when the tracking began.
Smith contends the Border Patrol has a political interest in keeping the numbers low.
Last summer, the agency was embarrassed when the death toll increased despite high-profile efforts that included building rescue beacons in remote areas and launching an international campaign warning of the dangers of crossing through harsh terrain and dealing with smugglers.
This year, the U.S. government spent $13 million to fly deported immigrants into the Mexican interior in hopes of deterring them from attempting another crossing.
Smith, who has tracked migrant deaths for 10 years, wrote a letter in June to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner, protesting the methodology that allows “dozens of migrant deaths a year (to) go uncounted by the Bureau.”
She points to one notorious 2003 case – the deaths of 19 people found in a sweltering truck-trailer near Victoria, Texas. It was the deadliest immigrant-smuggling attempt in the United States in more than 15 years, but the numbers were not included in Border Patrol statistics, officials say, because they were found too far from the border.
The agency’s count typically only includes people found in 43 U.S. counties that are within a 100-mile-wide belt along the border with Mexico.
That method also excluded 11 people whose bodies were found in October 2002 in a sealed rail car in Denison, Iowa, and three bodies found in a rail car near Baytown, Texas, in July 2003.
“The American people have the right to know the human cost, the real human cost, of these policies,” Smith says.
Border Patrol officials bristle at the allegation they are undercounting deaths.
“We are very interested in knowing about any death discovered along the border,” said Mario Villareal, a Washington-based spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. “But every death at the border shouldn’t be assumed to be a migrant death.”
If bodies of suspected migrants are found far inside U.S. territory, agents likely would record them internally but not in the official death toll, he said.
“Unfortunately, there are deaths that occur every day throughout the country,” Villareal said. “Making a determination about a possible migrant death 200 or 300 miles from the border is outside our operational authority.”
The agency also only counts deaths of migrants found on the U.S. side of the border. On the other hand, Mexico tracks fatalities on either side of the line, but only those of Mexican nationals. Migrants who are from other countries, or whose national origin is uncertain, are omitted from the count, according to Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In 2004, it counted 286 such deaths. In each of the previous three years, Mexico’s death toll was higher than the total kept by the Border Patrol.
“Each government maintains their own system,” said Gloria Chavez, a Border Patrol spokeswoman. “There isn’t a common methodology for tracking migrant deaths.”
Some activists are calling for an independent agency to take charge of counting the dead.
“It’s time for some other entity to do the demographics and homework on this,” said the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, an organization that has set up water stations in the Sonoran desert for border crossers.
“We’re entitled to know the human cost of these (border control) programs,” Hoover said. “How can we possibly devise proper public policies if we don’t even have an accurate body count?”
On the Web:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection: http://www.cbp.gov/
California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation: http://www.crla.org/
Humane Borders: http://www.humaneborders.org/