The number of immigrant deaths along the US–Mexico border is on the rise, which advocates and researchers said is the result of strict immigration policies and worsening conditions in native countries.
Since October, the start of the 2022 fiscal year, there have been 748 immigrant deaths at the border, CNN reported. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not officially released the numbers and declined to provide them.
The figure is likely an undercount. An April 2022 report from the US Government Accountability Office found that Border Patrol had not collected, recorded, or reported complete data on immigrant deaths to Congress. The report states that Border Patrol did not record deaths in cases where external entities, such as state and local officials, first discovered the remains and failed to note the data limitations in its reports to lawmakers.
The dangers of trying to enter the US undetected garnered national attention in June when authorities discovered the bodies of 53 immigrants who died in a sweltering tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio.
The 748 deaths are an increase from the previous record of 557 in fiscal year 2021. CBP reported 247 deaths along the southern border in 2020, 300 in 2019, and 281 in 2018.
Julia Neusner, research and policy attorney at Human Rights First, said the deaths were a direct and predictable consequence of border policies, specifically a Trump-era one that the Biden administration continues to use.
The policy, known as Title 42, blocks most immigrants and asylum-seekers from accessing the US immigration system and quickly expels them to Mexico or their home countries, blocking them from requesting refuge at ports of entry.
“Forcing people desperate for protection to attempt dangerous entries through hostile deserts and rivers, often at the mercy of brutal organized criminal groups who control border crossings between ports,” Neusner said. “These tragic deaths are entirely preventable.”
Joanna Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Kino Border Initiative, said Title 42 isn't the only factor driving these deaths. Continued violence by gangs seeking to control drug routes and economic distress in Central America and other parts of the Western Hemisphere are also driving migration, Williams said.
In September, Williams said her organization helped a Guatemalan family with a 3-year-old child who were fleeing violence back home and got lost in the desert after being abandoned by their smuggler. Despite suffering in the desert due to a lack of water and food until they were apprehended by Border Patrol, Williams said the family had plans to try again.
In recent days, a 53-year-old man arrived at the Kino Border Initiative barely able to walk because he was still recovering from a rattlesnake bite.
The immigrant man from Mexico wasn’t an asylum-seeker — he was hoping to get to the US to work. He struggled to find work because of age discrimination in Mexico and needed to sustain himself. Even without Title 42 in place, he would have tried to enter the US undetected, Williams said, so the policy wouldn't have made a difference.
Economic conditions haven’t improved in Central America, which is the place of origin of a significant number of immigrants at the border. A 2022 report from the Congressional Research Service said that without improved job creation, working-age people in Central America will have to choose between limited local employment opportunities or go elsewhere. Additionally, prolonged droughts since 2014 have resulted in crop losses, and coffee leaf rust, a fungus, has reduced production, which was typically a crucial source of seasonal income for about 1.3 million families in Central America.
Central America also has widespread sexual and gender-based violence, the report states.
It's worth noting that the number of Mexican and Central American immigrants, who used to account for most of the people US border authorities encountered, has been decreasing. In August, for the first time, the number of Mexicans and Central Americans encountered at the border was smaller than the number of immigrants from other countries.
US border officials are seeing the number of Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans at the border increase. This month, CBP said it has encountered 2 million immigrants at the border this fiscal year so far, a record number that includes people who try to repeatedly cross after being expelled by Title 42.
“The large number of individuals fleeing failing communist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba is contributing to an increased number of migrants attempting to cross the border,” CBP said in a statement.
Another factor resulting in immigrants taking more dangerous routes is the desire of deportees to reunite with their US citizen children, said Williams of the Kino Border Initiative.
“If they get caught by Border Patrol, they might not be processed because of Title 42, but they will certainly be deported,” Williams said. “They’re trying their hardest to get back to their families.”
The push factors and the realization that current border policies are unlikely to change anytime soon are making immigrants desperate and take more risks, she added.
“There’s no hope on the horizon,” Williams said. “Before, there was this sort of sense of we can wait this out and it’s going to get better either because the pandemic will go away or the Trump administration disappears or Biden will finally do something.”