March 11, 2013 -- Even though fewer migrants are being apprehended by immigration officials along the border in recent years, Border Patrol still finds hundreds of bodies of migrants who have died trying to cross into the U.S.
From the Associated Press:
"In the last 15 years, at least 5,513 migrants have been found dead along the 1,954-mile border with Mexico, including 463 in fiscal year 2012, the Border Patrol reports."
The Tucson sector, a segment of the border in Arizona, has seen the most deaths since 2001. There's a reason for that: The vast Arizona desert gives cover for migrants, and the border in California and in other parts of Arizona have become harder to cross in the last decade.
Are these deaths preventable? Perhaps not entirely, but there are steps we can take to begin to address this issue. Here are three of them:
1. Fix the Immigration System
A variety of push factors bring immigrants to the U.S., but the biggest one is work. For many undocumented workers, there is no viable pathway to legal status. And employers in a variety of sectors, like agriculture, for example, say they need access to more immigrant workers.
One way to cut back on the amount of illegal immigration coming through the southern border is to create a more appropriate alternative for immigrants. That's being considered by a bipartisan group of senators working on reform. The group, which includes immigration heavyweights like Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has asked business and labor interests to find common ground on future flows of immigration. So far, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have come up with a set of shared principles, but they're still trying to hash out a more detailed agreement. One of the things they've proposed is the creation of a new visa for lower-skilled workers.
2. Support Organizations That Help Migrants
One of the most dangerous aspects of crossing the desert into the U.S. is dehydration. Migrants typically only travel with enough bottled water to last a few days. If a person becomes lost, injured or separated from a group, a lack of water can become fatal.
Some concerned residents in border communities try to offer migrants a reprieve by placing jugs of water at stations in the desert. Humanitarian groups like Humane Borders and No More Deaths are non-profit organizations doing this type of work in Arizona. No More Deaths in particular has clashed with federal authorities who said that the gallon water bottles these groups leave at stations are litter. The cases have gone to court.
Border Patrol has also placed rescue beacons in certain spots along the border, an option for migrants who are so desperate that they're willing to go to authorities.
3. De-Emphasize Border Security
The U.S.-Mexico border has rapidly militarized over the past decade, something that may discourage some people from crossing but also may drive migrants into more perilous routes. In the 2012 fiscal year, the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement and put a record number of immigration agents along the border. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, says the border is secure, but has also warned that funding cuts could have a negative impact on enforcement.
Politically, there isn't much interest in cutting back on border security. The bipartisan Senate group working on reform has made increased border security part of its platform, and the presence of two Republican members of the group, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both from Arizona, virtually guarantees that border spending will be part of any deal.
Still, even as apprehensions have dropped along the border -- potentially due to increased security -- the number of recorded deaths hasn't decreased at the same rate. In the 2012 fiscal year, the overall number of deaths jumped, from 368 to 463.
And these are only the officials figures. Desert areas in Texas and Arizona are vast, so there's no way of knowing how many bodies aren't recovered.
The ramped up security in recent decades makes it increasingly difficult for migrants to cross the border illegally in certain places, like the area near San Diego or a section of the Arizona border called the Yuma sector. Advocates say that as a result, crossers are funnelled through more remote areas, which increases the odds of dying.