In the past five years, the number of migrants who have died while trying to slip from Mexico into the US has risen by more than 25 percent. Most of them perish from exposure to heat, cold, traffic, waterways, or criminals.
This increase has occurred as the US has tightened watch over its 1,950-mile border with Mexico, forcing migrants into more inhospitable terrain.
At least 300 deaths are estimated to have occurred last year. On the US side alone, according to studies, they rose from 205 in 1993 to 254 in 1998.
US border guards, charged with stopping illegal immigration, have recently begun acting to protect the very migrants who seek to evade them. The guards are being given more lifesaving training, as well as equipment such as life rings at dangerous waterways, blankets for winter, and cold packs and water for summer.
Mexico has started to work with the US to cut the death toll.
The two countries have pledged cooperation before to prevent the border deaths of Mexicans and sometimes migrants of other nationalities. But with deaths rising - embarrassing both governments and prompting pressure to stop the loss of life - there are signs that this time both sides are taking the problem seriously.
Last summer the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), announced a Border Safety Initiative to reduce deaths and border violence. As the number of US patrol agents on the Mexico border has almost doubled since 1993, the idea is to demonstrate that a "controlled border" can be a safer border.
Mexico's jobs to keep people home
For its part, Mexico is working to warn its citizens of the increased dangers of migration, and plans this year to promote new job-creating initiatives in areas of high emigration. It is also preparing to inaugurate a new national police force that will be charged with communicating the risks to migrants - even as it keeps one eye on Mexico's constitutional guarantee of the right to travel outside the country.
"This is a delicate issue, we are not enforcers of US law," says Juan Rebolledo Gout, undersecretary for North America and Europe at Mexico's Foreign Relations Secretariat. "But it is also the responsibility of the Mexican government to avoid even one death" on the border.
The increase in deaths, especially owing to drowning and exposure to heat and cold, follows changes in US border surveillance policy over this decade. Since 1993 the INS has created increasingly impenetrable lines of defense at the traditional - and easiest - migration corridors at San Diego, El Paso, and other urban areas. In response, migrants have forged new, more arduous routes in less guarded areas: across rivers and irrigation canals, and through rugged mountains and searing deserts that their predecessors carefully avoided.
The result has been a dramatic increase in deaths from exposure. A particularly hot summer is one reason exposure deaths rose in 1998, US officials say. Drownings have jumped at the All American Canal in California's Imperial County as migrants try to cross what before worked as a barrier to illegal crossings.
Some proponents of tighter immigration controls on the American side of the border say it is not the US government's fault that illegal migrants are taking ever-greater risks with their own lives. But critics say the US is responsible for deaths that result from a policy that led to migrants trying more dangerous areas.
"Blaming the elements for these deaths is like blaming a precipice for the deaths of those who were pushed toward it," says Jorge Bustamante, immigration specialist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.
Karl Eschbach, director of the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston, notes that the change in "strategy" for stopping illegal immigration has also been deadly for Border Patrol agents as more of them have been posted to rugged terrain where accidents and falls have multiplied. "The Border Patrol has made a concerted effort to reduce the [migrant] deaths," he says, "but the fact is the strategy has been to move migration from urban to more problematic rural areas."
The Mexican government is also concerned about the still small but growing number of violence-caused deaths of migrants, including killings by US law enforcement officials. In September four shootings by Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector resulted in two deaths of suspected illegal Mexican migrants. The agents said the victims were throwing or threatening to throw rocks.
Mexican officials are critical of what they consider the "general impunity" of US law enforcement officers who mistreat or kill migrants, and say part of the problem lies in the rapid increase in agents on the southwestern border.
"As more than 1,000 new [Border Patrol agents] have come in without experience," says Mexico's Mr. Rebolledo, "we have seen a worrying decline in the level of professionalism."
US officials respond that training of new border agents is more extensive than ever, while INS Commissioner Doris Meissner reiterated in a January meeting with Mexican officials that all claims of abuse by agents will be fully investigated.
US determined to do better
US officials insist the US has every interest in reducing deaths and demonstrating that the world's longest and busiest border between a developed and a developing country can be safe and orderly.
"Border deaths have always been a concern, but we can do much better at trying to reduce them and that's what we're working toward," says Rene Harris, the INS's border safety coordinator in Washington. The new safety initiative will focus on prevention, search and rescue, and identification of deceased migrants, she says.
The INS documented 254 migrant deaths in fiscal 1998. (It does not take into account deaths recorded on the Mexican side of the border, thus its lower border death count than other border-wide sources.) Of these 40 percent remained unidentified. That has led some human rights groups to speak of the border's desaparecidos or "disappeared."
"It requires a lot of work with local authorities and even binational coordination to reduce that 40 percent figure," says Ms. Harris. "But it's a top priority, for one thing because we know it leaves a lot of people wondering what happened to their relatives."
Officials on both sides of the border say that, in addition to national policies, it will take decentralization that allows better local coordination of binational cooperation to cut border deaths.
"It is possible to come up with local solutions that address local conditions, and without always going through Mexico City and Washington," says Rebolledo.
In El Paso, officials from both countries praise the effect of well-established coordination between the two sides in lowering deaths and especially in reducing incidents of border violence.
Citing an established tradition of close cooperation and the "professionalism" of immigration authorities on the US side, Mexico's consul general in El Paso, Armando Ortz Rocha, says, "We don't have the climate of violence and anti-immigrant sentiment you do on other parts of the border. ... That leads to a more humane focus here." In the last five years, he notes, there has not been one serious accusation of human rights violation against the El Paso Border Patrol.
Having noted that most of the migrant deaths in their sector are water-related - drownings in either the Rio Grande or the treacherous American Canal that parallels the river for more than 13 miles - officials with the El Paso Border Patrol have issued equipment and addressed training to reducing the deaths. Signs are also posted along the river and canal to warn of the danger of attempting to cross.
Last year the El Paso sector counted 17 drowning deaths - but also 92 waterway rescues by agents using newly issued water rings and trained in swift-water rescue and resuscitation. "In our view the heavier surveillance by our agents of these waterways is actually saving lives," says Michael Moon, assistant chief of the El Paso patrol.
Experience elsewhere on the border shows there are solutions to the border deaths. In San Diego, for example, high deaths of migrants running across busy freeways in the early 1990s were cut to almost nothing when fences were put up along medians.
"Cases like this suggest things can be done to bring down the numbers," says Eschbach. But the University of Houston sociologist, who has specialized in understanding border migrant deaths, says perhaps the only effective solution would be for the US to say that "saving human lives is our top priority," even at the cost of illegal immigration.
Arizona's trade-off for safety
Noting that deaths are low in Arizona despite the state's inhospitable deserts, Eschbach found that in high summer heat the Arizona Border Patrol closes down the highway checkpoints 50 to 100 miles from the border that force migrants to make long circumventing treks through the desert.
The result is fewer exposure deaths - but "undoubtedly more folks getting through," he says.
Adopting such measures as policy along the border "would be like saying openly, `We are determined to bring down deaths even if it means more people getting through,' " Eschbach says.
Few migration specialists see the US as willing to go that far.