Deaths at the US-Mexico Border Dropped in 2017 and 2018

A closer look at how US strategy along the border affects the immigrant fatality rate

Deaths at US Mexico Border
US Border Patrol agents carry out special operations near the US-Mexico border fence
David McNew / Getty
By Carl Caminetti / July 20, 2019 7:27 am

According to data compiled by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), deaths at the country’s southern border declined during Donald Trump’s first two years in office.

The agency tallied 298 deaths in 2017 and 283 in 2018, down from the 329 they reported in 2016, Barack Obama’s final year in office, and significantly below the averages posted during both Obama and George W. Bush’s tenures in office. (In 2015, however, there were 251 reported deaths at the border, a 10-year low; you can look at the full data set from 1998-2018 here.)

Public outcry has been abundant in recent months as the detainment of border crossers has spiked. CBP has apprehended nearly 700,000 individuals already in 2019, which dwarves the total number from any of the previous five years.

In June, Mexican newspaper La Jornada published a photo of a father and daughter who drowned near Brownsville, Texas, while attempting to cross into the U.S. The photo was widely shared on social media and news sites, leading to criticism of the current administration’s aggressive stance on illegal immigration. “The image represents a poignant distillation of the perilous journey migrants face on their passage north to the United States, and the tragic consequences that often go unseen in the loud and caustic debate over border policy,” wrote the New York Times.

It is difficult to say to what degree policy along the border affects the death toll. Some suggest a rigid policy of deterrence — a strategy that has been espoused by the current administration as well as the previous one — will discourage asylum seekers from coming in the first place, while others believe it compels desperate people to attempt their crossings along more perilous routes.

In May 2018, CNN published an investigative report criticizing the very practice of how migrant deaths are reported: according to their research, the Border Patrol failed to count hundreds of fatalities along the border in recent years. How the current crackdown — as mentioned, detainment has escalated severely in recent months — will affect those numbers remains to be seen; CBP data for deaths in 2019 is not yet available.

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