For decades, the U.S. government has used deaths as a metric when measuring the security of the border.
At over 100,000 square miles, the Sonoran Desert is a hot, harsh wasteland which stretches across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s a desert which tells a story.
Scattered across the red sand, among the sagebrush and cacti, you’ll find thousands of hats, clothes, water bottles, backpacks and other items. They’re the personal effects left behind by those who cross the desert to illegally enter the United States.
But the journey is fraught with uncertainty. Those who attempt the trek are gambling with their lives. Over 10,000 people have potentially perished in the Sonoran. Even more disturbing, the federal government is not only aware of the situation, but they consider it an effective method of deterrence.
Since 1994, a federal policy known as Prevention Through Deterrence has attempted to thwart illegal immigration by closing all but the most treacherous routes into the country. A recent three-part series from RadioLab took an in-depth look at what Prevention Through Deterrence is and how it came to be.
Border Patrol: Changing Tactics, Uneven Results
Crossing the body wasn’t always so dangerous. In the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, casualties averaged less than 10 a year. Basically, border crossing was a numbers game. People would gather in Tijuana in a place called the Soccer Field. From there, these hundreds of would-be immigrants would run across the border en masse, where about half would be captured by the border patrol. No particular punishment was involved. Anyone sent back to Mexico was free to try crossing the very next day.
It wasn’t an effective strategy. Eventually, the Border Patrol changed tactics. Instead of focusing on preventing people from crossing, they instead started to focus on identifying anyone on the U.S. side who possibly crossed illegally.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy identifying who is here legally and who isn’t. U.S. citizens were constantly stopped, questioned and often harassed by Border Patrol agents. While this happened frequently at basically any town located along the border, it was arguably most prevalent at a small high school in El Paso.
El Paso’s Bowie High School is notable for two reasons: its location and the makeup of its student body.
Bowie High is roughly 50 steps away from the U.S.-Mexico border. The school brushes up against a fence which is part of what’s called the “Tortilla Curtain.”
In the 1970s, the U.S government erected fencing along the border to curb illegal immigration. But the fencing back then was far different from the high-tech constructions seen on the border today. Back then, the fences were simpler, often just chain link, and poorly maintained.
Behind Bowie High, the fencing has a large hole. People would walk through the hole and walk across the high school campus as they entered the U.S. illegally. Before entering, they’d drop their worn clothing and gear behind (to avoid looking like they’d just spent days trekking through a desert).
The majority of Bowie’s student body is Hispanic. As were the majority of those crossing the border. The Border Patrol was essentially stopping basically anyone and everyone with brown skin who was reasonably close to school grounds.
At best, the stops were an inconvenience. But far too often, they were dangerous. Border agents pulled guns, yelled threats and, in a few instances, got violent with American high school students.
At first, the kids were surprisingly unfazed. It was simply the way their life had always been in that town. But a few teachers began to introduce concepts such as individual rights and the nation’s history of mistreatment towards poor minorities.
Over time, attitudes changed. In 1992, the students of Bowie High School filed a lawsuit against the Border Patrol over what they claimed was harassment based on race.
Surprisingly, they won. The border patrol was instructed to avoid targeting people solely based on race. At the time, it was a truly unexpected victory.
Border Patrol Changes Direction
Change didn’t happen overnight, but it did occur eventually. In 1993, former Vietnam veteran Silvestre Reyes was appointed as the new Chief Patrol Agent of the El Paso Border Patrol Sector.
Reyes implemented a radical new strategy. Instead of placing agents in U.S. towns, and instead of placing agents deep into the desert, he positioned them directly on the border in the most highly trafficked areas. Hundreds of agents – practically a human wall – were stationed outside urban areas such as El Paso and San Diego.
Dubbed “Operation: Hold the Line,” the new strategy was immediately controversial. Immigrant-rights groups decried it an inhumane. Violent clashes occurred between the Border Patrol and immigrants at the border. The story became national news.
Eventually, then-Attorney General Janet Reno demanded a meeting with Reyes. The Clinton Administration, hammered by negative press, wanted the Border Patrol to reverse course. But, instead of ending the strategy, Reyes encouraged Reno to check out El Paso herself.
She did – and the reaction of the residents was surprising. The people of El Paso loved the new strategy. Immigration-related crimes such as theft and vandalism were way down. American citizens were no longer getting harassed on the streets by Border Patrol agents.
Political Calculations Lead to a Change in Strategy
Until 1992, California had been a reliably red state for decades. Clinton won the Presidency in no small part due to his ability to turn the state blue. However, winning the state again was no sure thing.
Clinton acted to capitalize on the popularity of the “new” Border Patrol. In 1994, he instituted the first National Border Patrol Strategy after signing a Presidential Memorandum. Basically, Reyes’ strategy went national.
A massive influx of Border Patrol agents were stationed at the four major crossing corridors along the southwest border. They were stationed directly on the border, out-of-sight from the locals in the nearby town.
At first, the strategy appeared to be a success. But a deadly, difficult-to-see problem was developing.
Death in the Desert
Crossing into the country at an urban area was no longer possible. But plenty of desert was still barely monitored. The idea was that the harsh landscape would act as a natural deterrent.
But the Mexican economy struggled throughout the 1990s. Plus, plenty of U.S. farms and businesses were all-too-hungry for cheap immigrant labor. People still tried to enter the country illegally. Only instead of crossing in the relatively safe urban areas, they trekked across the dangerous desert.
The number of crossing-related deaths skyrocketed. Instead of a few people each year, hundreds were dying. By 2002, the official death tally averaged 150 people each year.
Even worse, the official death tally was likely far removed from reality. The Border Patrol estimated a dead body took about nine months to decompose in the desert. They used this figure to calculate the average number of deaths based on the bone fragments agents would discover in the desert. However, anthropologists set out to test the accuracy of this “nine month” claim.
They placed two dead pigs in the Sonoran Desert and recorded their decomposition. Surprisingly, the pigs were reduced to just a few bones in about nine days, not nine months. Almost certainly, scores of people were being swallowed up by the desert – and they were leaving behind practically no evidence of their existence.
Researchers looked into missing person reports on both sides of the border. While the data can be a bit inexact, they estimated up to 10,000 people have potentially died in the desert during the past 20 years.
These deaths weren’t a surprise to the government. Instead, deaths were used as a metric when gauging the effectiveness of the new strategy. Specifically, reporters found a policy document containing Appendix V, which acknowledge that increased enforcement in urban areas would directly lead to an increase in deaths as immigrants would likely try crossing at more remote areas.
For decades, the strategy of Prevention through Deterrence has been implemented even though the federal government never expected substantial numbers of people to actually be deterred. While there are no easy answers regarding immigration, a policy which leads to the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people is likely not something most Americans support. However, considering anti-immigration rhetoric is a hallmark of the Trump Administration, it’s likely a policy which will be in place for the foreseeable future.