Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths in Southern Arizona



Time to read

6 Minutes

By Daniel E. Martinez and Robin C. Reineke

The first week of June, along with our colleagues from the Binational Migration Institute (BMI) at the University of Arizona and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, we released a report with updated figures on undocumented border crosser (UBC) deaths in southern Arizona, USA. The state of Arizona shares a nearly 630-kilometer border with the northern Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora. According the U.S. Border Patrol, nearly a third of all the agency’s apprehensions occur in the Tucson Sector, an area that encompasses the eastern three-fourths of Arizona.

Our report builds on research conducted by BMI researchers since 2005 on data from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME), the agency charged with investigating migrant deaths in most of southern Arizona. When the first report was released in 2006, entitled “The Funnel Effect,” we had hoped that an end to the deaths along the border was near. That has not been the case. Seven years later, the deaths have not decreased, and we were compelled to update our work.

U.S.-Mexico Border Deaths Monument\nSource: © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
The remains of at least 2238 migrants were recovered between fiscal year (FY) 1990 – the earliest year BMI began counting migrant deaths in southern Arizona – and 2012. Further, an additional 1314 migrants have died since BMI’s last report was released – a figure nearly one-and-a-half times greater than the number of people whose remains were recovered between FY 1990 and 2005.

We strongly believe that the dissemination of this information is important, especially considering that media coverage of migrant deaths has dwindled in southern Arizona over the past several years. Despite the fact that the number of migrant deaths in the region remains high, the deaths have become normalized, almost even expected, year-after-year. More attention must be paid to migrant deaths not just along the Arizona-Sonora border, or even the U.S.-Mexico border, but worldwide. Migrant deaths have become a global humanitarian crisis. Markets have become increasingly globalized while laborers have become increasingly restricted. Neoliberal economic policies have led to the displacement of thousands of peasants and working-class people around the world, who then face heightened securitization of political nation-state boundaries when they attempt to migrate.

The release of this report is also very timely. U.S. policy makers are now debating what is arguably the single most important piece of immigration legislation in thirty years. Ominously, no mention of deaths along the border is made in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744). The last time that the federal government made overhauls to immigration policy on this scale, in the mid 1990s, the U.S.-Mexico border saw historic increases in enforcement that led to the death of hundreds of migrants each year (Eschbach et al. 1999; Eschbach et al. 2003; Cornelius 2001, 2005; Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006; Jimenez 2009).

U.S.-Mexico border\nSource: Latinovations
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. government began fortifying traditional urban crossing points along the U.S.-Mexico border starting in 1993 with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas. Following the “success” of Hold the Line came Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, California, in 1994 and Operation Safeguard in Nogales, Arizona, in 1995 (see Dunn 1996, 2009; Andreas 1998, 2009; Nevins 2002). This fortification process coincided with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement which eventually displaced thousands of Mexican campesinos in the southern part of the country and spurred massive internal migration within Mexico, as well as immigration to the U.S.

The aim of border enforcement efforts of the era was to redirect unauthorized migration flows away from urban areas and into remote and dangerous regions of the border. Policy makers had hoped that this process would deter would-be migrants from attempting unauthorized crossings while also giving U.S. authorities a tactical advantage when apprehending border crossers.

U.S.-Mexico border in the Tuscon Sector\nSource: ticotimes.net
Migration routes shifted drastically. During the early 1990s, roughly one in twelve apprehensions occurred in the Tucson Sector. By the early 2000s that ratio narrowed to around one in three. The aggregate number of people crossing through the area also increased. In FY 1993, around 90,000 people were apprehended in the Tucson Sector, compared with over 600,000 in FY 2000. An increase in deaths soon followed. Between FY 1990 and 1999, the PCOME handled an average of 12 cases of deceased undocumented border crossers per year. Between FY 2002 and 2012, that yearly average was 179. Southern Arizona has been experiencing an unmitigated disaster each year of the past decade.

Some may argue that the increase in migrant deaths in southern Arizona is simply a function of increased migrant traffic in the area—that more people are dying because more people are crossing. However, when Border Patrol apprehension statistics are taken into account, the death rate has actually increased exponentially since 1999. Figure 2 from our report (below) illustrates the number of migrant deaths per year standardized to 100,000 apprehensions. Although not a precise measure of unauthorized crossings, previous research has demonstrated that apprehension statistics are highly correlated and fluctuate with true unauthorized migration flows (see Epenshade 1995).

Click on the figure for a larger image.
Overall, the number of migrant deaths in southern Arizona each year remains high – much higher than pre-FY 2000 years. Further, the approximate migrant death rate in the area in FY 2012 was the second highest on record, only behind FY 2011. This trend, paired with the high rate of heavily decomposed remains being recovered over the past several years, leads us to believe that migrants today are crossing for longer periods of time through even more remote areas in an attempt to avoid detection by U.S. authorities. If recent history is any indication, the increased border enforcement efforts outlined in the current immigration reform bill, S. 744, will lead to more death and suffering along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially when demand for immigrant labor increases as the U.S. economy recovers. The root causes of unauthorized migration are economic and social in nature. It logically follows that the solution to unauthorized migration and migrant deaths lie in addressing these issues, not greater border enforcement.

The full report can be found here.

Works Cited and Further Reading

About the authors:

Daniel E. Martínez recently successfully defended his dissertation in the School of Sociology at the University of Arizona and was hired as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at The George Washington University in Washington DC. His areas of research interest include immigration, criminology, and the sociology of race and ethnicity.

Robin Reineke is a doctoral candidate in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation, “Naming the Dead: Identification and Ambiguity along the U.S.-Mexico Border,” is about institutional and family efforts to identify the bodies of deceased migrants along the Arizona-Sonora portion of the U.S.-Mexico border. For the past seven years, she has worked at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, where she co-founded the Missing Migrant Project.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Martinez, DE and Reineke, RC (2013) Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths in Southern Arizona. In: Border Criminologies. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/border-crosser-deaths/ (accessed [date]).

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