This week The Washington Times reported that the Border Patrol has been undercounting migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border for several years, according to the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency for Congress.
The GAO’s immediate findings reveal that while Customs and Border Protection agency has kept a record of the deceased migrants it finds, its numbers do not include many instances in which remains are discovered by other parties. In some instances, the distinctions were significant. In eastern Arizona, the agency’s count differed by more than 50% than other, independent measures.
“CBP has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress complete data on migrant deaths or disclosed limitations with the data it has reported,” the GAO said.
The revelation confirms complaints from immigrant rights activists who have long expressed concerns about the dangers for migrants attempting to cross the border and allegations equally made by pro-enforcement organizations about the volume of illegal immigration happening at the southern border. It also raises troubling questions about why it took so long for the U.S. government to confirm what other organizations and journalistic enterprises have long asserted.
In a special investigation conducted by USA Today as far back as 2017, the national newspaper found “federal authorities largely fail to count border crossers when their remains are recorded by local authorities, and even local counts are often incomplete. … But a complete accounting proved elusive. Why? Because many local authorities responsible for investigating deaths on or near the border don’t track border-crosser deaths.”
According to that 5-year-old report, migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border were estimated somewhere between 25% to 300% higher than the official death tolls recorded from 2012 to 2016. “Illegal crossings along the southwestern border have claimed 7,209 lives over the past 20 years, according to official Border Patrol statistics, but the actual number is far higher,” the story reads.
In February, The Conversation network of not-for-profit media outlets reported that the undercounting problem has gone back decades.
“Undercounting is not a new problem. But the likelihood of migrants’ bodies being recovered and counted, has dropped as migrants travel along more desolate paths. Migrant bodies have been discovered in increasingly remote areas, farther from roads, towns and cellphone service since 1990,” the authors asserted.
This past year, the Border Patrol’s numbers are about 15% below some others. While the Border Patrol reported 557 deaths from October 2020 through September 2021, the U.N.-sponsored International Organization for Migration reported that the real number of fatalities was much higher than 650. The organization noted, “all [migrant deaths] figures remain undercounts.”
While the undercounts underestimate the volume of illegal immigration and lessen the deterrence for migrants to make attempts at border crossing, there are other casualties. Since the journey across Latin America is a treacherous one with travelers facing killings, kidnappings and sexual violence, many families are left with the pain of not knowing the fate of their loved ones.
While migrant rights activists have blamed the government for tightening border security in safer areas, which purportedly drives migrants to attempt to enter the U.S. at more dangerous crossing points, the CBP has taken many precautionary and preventive measures. This includes placing 165 rescue beacons in high traffic corridors so migrants can call for help and more than 2,500 placards with instructions on how to call 911 for emergency assistance.
The Border Patrol cannot be expected to prevent all border-crossing deaths or find the remains of all deceased migrants. However, moving forward it can and should at least engage in full transparency about the challenges it faces to give the public a more accurate picture of the crisis at hand.
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