For more than two decades, the U.S. Border Patrol has told a story about the role it plays in the Southwest. Confronted with the fact that thousands of migrants have died crossing the border during those years, the agency has produced dramatic videos of agents conducting rescues, invited reporters to demonstrations showcasing its lifesaving skills, and pointed to the existence of its specialized search and rescue unit. The efforts are used to drive home a talking point common among Border Patrol officials, one in which the most militarized component of the nation’s largest police agency is also the border’s “largest humanitarian organization.”
A new report from two of the border’s leading nongovernmental humanitarian organizations calls this narrative into question, arguing that a close examination of Border Patrol responses to migrants in distress proves that militarized law enforcement and the provision of humanitarian aid do not mix.
“Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance,” published Wednesday by No More Deaths, a faith-based organization based in Tucson, Arizona, and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, an organization that has provided humanitarian aid on the border since the 1990s, analyzed hundreds of emergency cases recorded by a nongovernmental crisis line and more than 2,100 calls routed by Pima County Sheriff’s Department 911 dispatchers to the Border Patrol over a two-year period. Buttressed by further analysis of Border Patrol press releases and interviews, the 122-page report documented evidence of inaction, indifference, and obstruction to reports of missing migrants. The Border Patrol “has monopolized emergency services for undocumented people in the borderlands,” the report said, crowding out other sources of humanitarian aid while failing to provide those services on its own. In the face of a humanitarian catastrophe that’s taken a minimum of nearly 10,000 lives, the report concluded that the Border Patrol’s “systematic negligence toward emergency reports of undocumented people in distress constitutes a state crime of historic proportions.”
“The conflict of interest between Border Patrol’s enforcement mission and its directive to search for and rescue those in distress on U.S. soil is precisely why international governing bodies mandate the strict separation of humanitarian and military activities during human rights emergencies,” the report said. “Border Patrol as an agency, and Border Patrol agents in the field, cannot reasonably advance both humanitarian and political/military objectives simultaneously.”
Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, has spent years studying the culture of the Border Patrol and the consequences of its operations. He agreed that the Border Patrol’s core identity and mission made it impossible for the agency to ever be considered a properly functioning humanitarian organization. Ever since the post-9/11 creation of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, a debate has raged in policy circles about how the federal government’s immigration agencies should balance enforcement versus the provision of services, Heyman noted. Among those agencies, he said, “Border Patrol is the most purely enforcement minded.”
The report found that the Border Patrol took no confirmed action in 60 percent of the cases where a search was requested.
From 2015 through 2016, Derechos Humanos received thousands of calls on a hotline established for migrants in distress; 456 of those calls were deemed emergencies, and 89 involved a call to the Border Patrol requesting that the agency conduct a search. The report found that the Border Patrol took no confirmed action in 60 percent of the cases where a search was requested. In 40 percent of those cases, the “Border Patrol directly stated to families and/or humanitarian responders that the agency would not conduct any search or rescue response for a known distressed person,” the report said. “In 16 of these instances, Border Patrol’s direct refusal to respond to a reported emergency resulted in the distressed person’s death or disappearance.”
In a quarter of the emergency cases fielded by Derechos Humanos, the report found that the Border Patrol “obstructed” the process through a variety of means. Examples included agents directing families and humanitarian groups to nonworking phone numbers or providing them with false information, such as telling family members that their loved ones had been found alive when that was not true. In one case, aid volunteers sought assistance from the Border Patrol’s “elite” search and rescue team. According to the report, an agent told the volunteers it was “too hot” for the government team to operate. In another case, a volunteer called to report a missing teenager last seen in a dangerous area roughly 15 miles north of the border. According to the “Left to Die” report, “Border Patrol told the responding Crisis Line volunteer that the agency would not activate a search for the unaccompanied minor because they ‘didn’t work that far south.’”
Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest police agency, told The Intercept in a statement that it “remains committed to humanely securing the southern border of the United States and devotes the totality of its force to finding lost or injured individuals while also balancing the border security mission with which they are charged.”
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s report, CBP published a feature-length article in Frontline, the agency’s in-house magazine, touting the Border Patrol’s humanitarian efforts. The article noted how extraordinarily deadly the summer of 2020 was for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border; as The Intercept reported in January, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office closed out 2020 having nearly broken its 10-year record for most migrant remains received in a single year (over the weekend, the Guardian reported that the state’s record was officially broken). The article noted that CBP personnel “saved more than 5,000 people and conducted 1,400 search and rescue operations in fiscal year 2020.” The figures were accompanied by a 2,400-word profile of the agency’s Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue team — “better known as BORSTAR” — while casting all blame for deaths on the border on smugglers and showing how the federal government is responding.
“What we found in the report is that Border Patrol as an agency is twice as likely to cause a person to become lost and in distress in the desert than they are to rescue anyone.”
It was precisely the kind of public framing targeted in the No More Deaths/Derechos Humanos report. “What those measures are ultimately aimed at is legitimizing the agency that’s actually causing the crisis and sort of positioning them as somehow the saviors,” Max Granger, a longtime humanitarian aid volunteer and co-author of the report, told The Intercept. The evidence shows that the Border Patrol’s sought-after legitimacy is wholly unwarranted, he argued: “What we found in the report is that Border Patrol as an agency is twice as likely to cause a person to become lost and in distress in the desert than they are to rescue anyone.”
A lack of transparency as to how the Border Patrol defines and tracks its “rescues” makes a serious problem much worse, the No More Deaths/Derechos Humanos report argued. Examining a sample of about 160 press releases describing Border Patrol “rescues” from 2015 to 2016, the organizations concluded that more than half “actually describe a routine arrest,” including a 2018 “rescue” in which Border Patrol agents in Arizona chased an 18-year-old through the wilderness with a helicopter, causing him to nearly drown in a cattle pond. “At least 91 of the 456” emergency cases logged by the Derechos Humanos crisis line involved a so-called Border Patrol chase and scatter incident, when agents descend on groups of migrants, often with helicopters, to break them up so they are easier to catch. The report said: “In other words, approximately one in five emergencies involved distressed individuals having been chased but not arrested by Border Patrol agents in remote areas.”
In a statement, CBP said that the Border Patrol defines rescues as “incidents where lack of intervention by the Border Patrol could result in death or serious bodily injury to suspected undocumented migrants” and added that “rescues of Border Patrol Agents, U.S. citizens and other individuals lawfully in the United States are also reportable.” The agency added that from fiscal year 2015 through fiscal year 2020, the Border Patrol “responded to 4,537 unique events for emergency calls (911) for individuals in lost or in distress, resulting in 8,518 successful rescues.”
Across the border, the report pointed to an absence of consistently applied Border Patrol protocols in cases involving migrants in distress: “Instead, the agency’s behavior seems to depend largely on the personal approach of the responding agent.” In one case, “a Crisis Line volunteer called Border Patrol repeatedly to try to activate a search for a missing individual. Later, the volunteer received a mysterious call from an unknown personal cell phone — the caller simply said that the lost person was safe, and then hung up,” the report said. “The volunteer later learned that the call had come from a sympathetic Border Patrol agent who had called in secret because she was afraid of breaking protocol by calling the volunteer back with information. Such exceptional cases speak to how Border Patrol’s standard culture is one of noncommunication, dismissiveness, and hostility — a standard that agents subvert by being responsive and timely when communicating about emergencies with family, advocates, and the public.”
The discretion afforded to individual Border Patrol agents is key to understanding how the agency functions, Heyman, the UTEP professor, said. The Border Patrol is a “field organization,” he explained, which means that life-or-death decisions typically boil down to a lone agent or pair of agents in a remote part of the country, often in the middle of the night, with little expectation of close oversight of their actions. “It comes down to the discretion of individual officers and especially supervisors who are out there assigning people in the field,” Heyman said. If an agent or supervisor has developed an attitude that a report of a migrant in distress represents something less than a human being in need of care, that could impact how they respond in the moment.
“No More Deaths, I think, has done an important piece of work here,” Heyman said. He pointed to a passage in the report detailing the extensive efforts that government offices made to locate a pair of German hikers who died of heat exhaustion in the mountains outside of Tucson in 2016, and how those efforts compared to the Border Patrol’s responses to cases of migrants in distress. “Why is a German tourist different from a Guatemalan migrant?” Heyman asked. By raising those kinds of questions, he said, the report opened the door to a deeper conversation about “the way people are taken care of or not” on the border and the inherent problems in ceding the humanitarian response to migrant deaths to the Border Patrol.
“When you give them this humanitarian task, they devalue it and they don’t have a service mentality,” he said. “Defaulting this stuff to an enforcement agency is just a predictable failure.”
When President Joe Biden took office last month, he inherited a bundle of crises. Some, like the coronavirus, were more recent and present in the American psyche. Others have festered for generations, largely removed from a wider public debate but deadly all the same. The humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border falls into the latter category, and as No More Deaths/Derechos Humanos’ report makes clear, its origins are rooted in U.S. border enforcement strategies going back decades.
In 1994, the Clinton administration implemented a new strategy for securing the U.S.-Mexico border. Accepting that the “absolute sealing of the border is unrealistic,” planners from the Border Patrol, the Pentagon, and the now-defunct Immigration Nationalization Service nonetheless believed the divide could be “brought under control.” Dubbed “Prevention Through Deterrence,” the borderwide strategy they developed relied on a buildup of interdiction infrastructure around key border cities, thus funneling migration flows into “hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” The plan accepted that migrants would encounter “mortal danger.” An assessment published by the Government Accountability Office three years after it went into effect listed “deaths of aliens attempting entry” among indicators of the strategy’s effectiveness. That assessment was delivered to the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 1997, where Biden was serving as the ranking minority member.
The strategy’s impact was immediately felt in southern Arizona, where the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County went from seeing an average of roughly 12 migrant deaths a year in the early 1990s to more than 150 a year in recent decades. Facing blowback over the explosion in deaths, the Border Patrol created BORSTAR in 1998 and began rebranding itself as both a law enforcement and humanitarian organization. The effort was met with skepticism from nongovernmental humanitarian aid providers, who detected a public relations ploy that ignored the core problem: a law enforcement strategy that weaponized a deadly ecosystem to accomplish its mission. As the Rev. John Fife, a co-founder of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement and of No More Deaths, said in a 2001 interview: “BORSTAR is like a lifeguard who tries to herd everyone into the deep end, and then takes credit for the occasional rescue.” Five days after Fife’s words were published, terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C. The Border Patrol and the migrant death toll in the American Southwest have been growing ever since.
Since 9/11, CBP has routinely absorbed more federal funding than the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and the FBI combined. Growing from 4,100 agents in 1992 to nearly 20,000 today, the modern Border Patrol is a sprawling paramilitary organization with a lengthy record of corruption, abuse, and politicization. According to the agency’s data, nearly 8,000 sets of human remains were recovered on the southern border from 1998 to 2019. Multiple journalistic investigations in recent years have shown that the patrol’s records are a poorly kept undercount. Experts agree that the true death toll is undoubtably higher. No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos estimated the number of lives lost since the advent of Prevention Through Deterrence could be three to 10 times larger than the Border Patrol’s total — meaning upward of 80,000 deaths in the past quarter century.
“You can’t call Border Patrol a valid government search and rescue agency. That’s not what they do.”
For Robin Reineke, the question of the true toll is an emotionally frustrating one. An assistant research social scientist at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, Reineke is one of the world’s leading experts on migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert. In 2006, she co-founded the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a Tucson-based nonprofit that works closely with the families of individuals who have disappeared or died crossing the border. “We’re never going to know how many people have died and disappeared in this landscape,” Reineke told The Intercept. The anthropologist attributed the border’s transformation into a zone of human disappearance and death to two key factors: Prevention Through Deterrence and the absence of federal response to its consequences. “That’s basically what this report is saying — is we don’t have a federal search and rescue operation in the desert borderlands,” Reineke said. “That doesn’t exist. You can’t call Border Patrol a valid government search and rescue agency. That’s not what they do.”
In the weeks since he took office, Biden has signed several executive orders revoking several of the Trump administration’s most infamous immigration policies, including three new orders signed this week, and proposed legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
While many of Biden’s efforts mark clear breaks from the Trump era, critical legacies of the president’s predecessor remain. Among them is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule commonly referred to as Title 42, which allows for the rapid, due-process-free expulsion of migrants at the border. The rule was aggressively pushed by Trump’s ultranationalist immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, in response to the pandemic and over the objections of public health experts. Since the rule’s implementation last March, U.S. border authorities have summarily removed more than 400,000 migrants, including unaccompanied children. At least for the near-term, Biden is expected to continue enforcing the rule. With the border effectively closed, law enforcement officials in Arizona have described a return to the state’s “dark days,” with migrants seeking riskier means to make it into the U.S. and in some cases dying in the process.
Heyman, the UTEP professor, argued that decriminalization of migration flows is critical to saving lives. “All of these things are symptoms of a disease and the disease is this illegalization of migration flows,” he said. “The size of the problem would be vastly smaller if we did that.” Reineke, the Arizona researcher, linked the report to a broader pattern in the U.S., wherein state investment in care of marginalized populations is routinely diminished while investment in law enforcement is prioritized. “What you see on the border is an extreme version of that,” she said. Reineke added that the implications of Wednesday’s report should be cause for collective introspection.
“One of the big things to ask is not just how big is this problem, but why has it been allowed to go on for so long?” she said. For many families of the disappeared and dead, she noted, the problems described in the report are just the entry point into a new system of trauma — one that, in some cases, never ends. “The disappearance issue within the physical borderlands is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the families experience when they try to find information about a missing loved one in this country,” Reineke said. “It’s shameful.”
Update: Feb. 3, 2021, 9:33 a.m. ET
This article has been updated to include a statement from CBP that was received after publication.