Julian Resendiz, Border Report, 8 April 2024

EL PASO, Texas – A regional humanitarian nonprofit says the federal government is undercounting migrant deaths and continues to engage in practices such as chases of suspected smugglers that result in third-party fatalities.

Research published in March by the Arizona-based No More Deaths shows two to four times as many migrants died in West Texas and Southern New Mexico in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 than reported by the government. The deaths resulted from dehydration or hypothermia (depending on the season), falls from mountains or the border wall, drownings, being struck by motor vehicles and being injured during law-enforcement chases.

The group attributes the undercount – which it documents case-by-case in a public database with more than 400 deaths – to insufficient follow-up with hospitals, local police and medical examiners after border agents or officers come upon injured parties or skeletal remains.

“I’ve seen in the data they only take 4% of deaths that occur in a hospital,” said Bryce Peterson, an independent researcher for No More Deaths. “I’ve seen reports of a death that was not reported by the (U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s) Office of Professional Responsibility even though Border Patrol was aware of it.”

Research from No More Deaths has 438 migrants dying in the El Paso Sector from 2012-2023, compared to 312 reported by the federal government.

The group says its data comes from CBP, medical examiner’s offices in El Paso and Hudspeth Counties and the New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner Investigator. The group says it wants to show the disparity to bring about more transparency and accountability from government agencies.

In a statement to Border Report, CBP said it follows Congressional reporting requirements. And while the disparity is substantial between 2016 and 2022, CBP documented more migrant deaths in 2022 than No More Deaths did (149 vs. 139).

“While CBP works had to track this information as fully and accurately as possible, these data are not all-encompassing. These numbers may differ from other organizations that track similar data,” CBP told Border Report.

The agency tracks two sets of migrant deaths: in-custody and on-the-field encounters. The latter since 2017 has been documented in collaboration with local governments through the Missing Migrant Program. It operates in 45 counties along the Southwest border and tracks fatalities of individuals suspected of dying during or after entering the country illegally, and whether the Border Patrol intervened.

The agency admits it is a work in progress.

“The U.S. Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program continues to expand partnerships with key stakeholders to improve tracking of reportable incidents,” CBP said.

In a 2022 report, the Government Accountability Office said federal migrant death data is incomplete. “In April (2022), GAO found that Border Patrol has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths. In particular, all migrant deaths in instances where an external entity first discovers the remains of a deceased migrant,” the report states.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said the undercount is no surprise.

“It highlights what we have known for several years and it’s the fact that, yes, there is an undercount of migrants dying on the border. Every time the official numbers reflect something that isn’t necessarily the reality,” Garcia said.

He said Americans have a right to know how dangerous the border is and neither the federal government nor politicians should downplay it.

Border Network for Human Rights for years has been blaming many of the deaths on hardline immigration enforcement policies that force migrants to cross the border through deserts, mountains, bodies of water or make a run for it through busy highways just north of the wall or the Rio Grande.

“Hundreds if not thousands of people are dying because of formal U.S. border policy. This is death by policy,” he said.

Government pursuits criticized; Mexicans, Guatemalans make up most fatalities

No More Deaths says immigration agency chases, on foot and by vehicle, account for at least 35 migrant deaths in the region. That’s not counting U.S. citizens who’ve died while allegedly transporting migrants for profit.

In June 2020, four El Paso teens and three Guatemalan migrants fleeing the Border Patrol died when their vehicle crashed coming off a curve at high speed. Accidents involving pursuits, not only by border agents but also by DPS, have only multiplied since.

“Ending these pursuit practices would greatly reduce deaths, so would the removal of the border wall,” Peterson said. “If 911 calls went to local search and rescue organizations, the rescue response would likely be much stronger.”

In previous interviews, border agents and Texas Department of Public Safety officials have told Border Report letting smugglers drive off endangers the migrants. Numerous cases of kidnapping, extortion, sexual abuse and exploitation have been documented in court dockets in border states and beyond.

“Transnational criminal organizations continue to recklessly endanger the lives of individuals they smuggle for financial gain. Smugglers often abandon migrants in remote and dangerous areas where severe heat, exposure and miles of desert pose countless threats,” CBP told Border Report.

No More Deaths’ database shows half the deaths within El Paso city limits involved drownings, while the desert between Sunland Park and Hidalgo and Luna counties in New Mexico have claimed more than 100 lives. An overwhelming majority of deceased migrants identified are either Mexican or Guatemalan.

“This is the population that is mostly affected. When Mexicans apply for asylum, they are immediately rejected. I think there’s an understanding that Mexicans do not have the (same) right for asylum, so they go between the ports of entry,” Garcia of Border Network for Human Rights said.

In earlier interviews, El Paso immigration attorneys like Carlos Spector have confirmed Mexican nationals face steeper hurdles to gain asylum than other nationalities.

Other fatalities include Salvadorans, Colombians, Brazilians and Ecuadorans.

International security experts and former Border Patrol officials say transnational criminal organizations in league with gangs in other parts of the hemisphere bring large groups of people from all over the world to the border. Sometimes they tell them to surrender at the border wall; other times, they help them over the border wall and arrange for their pickup on the U.S. side. But sometimes the migrants get lost in the desert or left behind by smugglers who have already been paid.

“It is major crisis; it is a catastrophe that needs to be resolved but no one is paying attention to it,” Garcia said.