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ROB T. GUERETTE Florida International University

Research Summary: Subsequent to U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) efforts to control illegal immigration throughout the 1990s, concern arose over an apparent increase in deaths of illegal migrants as they began to undertake more treacherous routes to enter the United States from Mexico. In response, the Border Safety Initiative (BSI) was created to increase safety along the southwest border. Using multiple data sources, including the USBP BSI Incident Tracking System, this study evaluated the impact of life- saving efforts performed under the BSI program. Results indicate that there has been no overall reduction in the rate of migrant deaths since BSI has been in operation. However, an evaluation of BORSTAR search and rescue teams and the 2003 Lateral Repatriation Program (LRP), which returned apprehended migrants from Tucson sector to less hazardous places along the border, were found to be effective in preventing migrant deaths.

Policy Implications: Critics of U.S. immigration policy claim that the only way reductions in migrant deaths along the U.S.–Mexico border can be achieved is through liberalization of immigration policy and relaxing of border security. Yet, for more than a decade, U.S. policy makers have increased restrictions on immigration and have tightened security at the borders. Considering this, alternative means must be deployed in order to save migrant lives in the near term rather than waiting for a reversal of immigration policy. This study suggests that proactive life-saving measures implemented through a harm-reduction strategy can have some impact on saving migrant lives.

* Part of this research was supported through a project administered by the Border Research and Technology Center, a program of the National Institute of Justice. Points of view or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. The author would like to thank Ronald V. Clarke for his assistance and guidance on the project.

VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2 2007 PP 201–222 R

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KEYWORDS: Migrant Death, Illegal Immigration Policy, Border Deaths, Border Patrol, Border Security

Throughout the last few decades, the United States has faced increasing problems of foreign nationals entering the country illegally in hopes of benefiting from abundant economic opportunity. In response, the U.S. Border Patrol implemented several operations in select border areas designed to prevent and detect illegal entries.1 The purpose of these oper- ations was to close off routes most frequently traveled by migrants and smugglers so that they would (1) be deterred from entry, (2) shift their attempts to ports of entry where inspection is systematic, or (3) alter their routes to more remote terrain where Border Patrol agents would have the tactical advantage (Government Accountability Office (GAO), 2001). In terms of altering migration routes, these operations seem to have been successful (Eschbach et al., 2001; GAO, 2001; Reyes et al., 2002).

In the wake of tightened border security, some border watchers called attention to an apparent increase in deaths as migrants sought out more treacherous routes to enter the United States undetected. Although it was expected that changes in traffic patterns would occur, an increase in migrant deaths was not (GAO, 2001:24). Since the year 2000, more than 300 migrant deaths are recorded along the border each year and it is believed many more perish but remain unfound. Citing these deaths, many criticized U.S. legislation and heightened border security calling for the reversal of immigration policy in the name of saving migrant lives. In response to these concerns, the then Immigration and Naturalization Ser- vice (INS) created the Border Safety Initiative (BSI) on June 16, 1998, which directed the United States Border Patrol (USBP) to increase safety along the border zone.

Rather than relaxing border security, BSI operations have focused on increasing border safety through adoption of a proactive harm-reduction strategy that resembles recent trends in community/problem-based polic- ing (Goldstein, 1979, 1990; Kelling and Coles, 1996; Wilson and Kelling, 1982). Specifically, the BSI program sought to reduce deaths primarily through the use of educational campaigns informing would-be migrants of the dangers of crossing in remote areas, provisions of life-saving equip- ment and training for line agents, and through search and rescue opera- tions performed by Border Search Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) teams. The BSI program also carried out a repatriation program in the summer of 2003, which relocated apprehended migrants from the Tucson

1. Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector and Operation Safeguard in the Tucson sector, 1994; Operation Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, August 1997.

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area to less treacherous places along the Mexican border. To date, how- ever, it is unclear whether these efforts have been successful in preventing deaths among illegal immigrants. This study examines the impact of life- saving operations carried out under the BSI program.


For the past two decades, U.S. policy makers initiated consecutive poli- cies that led to increased fortification along the southwest border and more restrictive immigration laws. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the 1990 Immigration Reform Act, and the 1996 Ille- gal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act have all sought to prevent illegal immigration.2 Although several theories offer to explain this policy trend (Andreas, 2000; Martinez, 2002; Nevins, 2002a; Parenti, 1999; Welch, 2002), the uncontestable result has been fewer opportunities for legitimate entry into the United States and increased enforcement against those in violation. The continuation of this restric- tionist trend in the near term seems certain. The U.S. Congress recently authorized even more security at the southwest border, including the building of an additional 700 miles of fencing along the border (Bauza, 2006) and many border states have activated National Guard units to assist the Border Patrol.

One consequence of enhanced border security has been the apparent increase in migrant deaths. Several researchers attributed the cause of migrant casualties to U.S. immigration policy and the border buildup dur- ing the early 1990s (Cornelius, 2001; Eschbach et al., 1999, 2001; Reyes et al., 2002). This result was evidenced both by an increase in environmental exposure-related deaths as migrants began crossing more hazardous routes to enter the United States undetected and by an increase in the number of recorded deaths after the border enforcement campaigns began. Thus, as the difficulty of crossing the border increased, the number of migrants that

2. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) initiated three pri- mary provisions: (1) the creation of sanctions for employers who knowingly hired undocumented aliens, (2) increased enforcement along the U.S. borders, and (3) legali- zation of then current illegal aliens residing in the United States. The 1990 Immigration Reform Act for the first time stipulated that all immigrants were subject to numerical restrictions, restricted criteria for entry, and liberalized conditions for exclusion. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Respon- sibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These acts expanded the powers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) by allowing for the detention and deportation of any illegal and legal immigrant who has been charged with or convicted of a drug offense or who otherwise possesses a criminal record. Additionally, the 1996 act established measures to control U.S. borders and augmented enforcement of laws prohibiting businesses from employing illegal aliens.

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perished also rose. This connection has been used by critics of U.S. immi- gration policy to call for the removal of the border buildup in the name of saving migrant lives (Nevins, 2002b).

Rather than loosening security at the border, the then INS announced the creation of the BSI in response to concerns about migrant deaths. The program was launched in conjunction with the Mexican government and was designed to make the border safer for migrants, officers,3 and border residents, although most efforts have been devoted to migrants. The BSI program became operational in June 1998 and consists of four elements: prevention, search and rescue, identification, and tracking and recording.

Under this initiative, the Border Patrol has implemented several safety measures along the 2,013 miles of U.S.–Mexico border as part of the ongo- ing BSI strategy. These measures are as follows:

• Implementation of public message campaigns and posting signs identifying the dangers of remote terrain crossings.

• Search and rescue operations performed by selected and highly trained agents that comprise the BORSTAR teams.

• Training of line agents in initial life-saving and rescue techniques. • Creation of a data tracking system that records all rescues and

deaths along the U.S. side of the southwest border. The data are intended to inform ongoing life-saving measures.

In addition to ongoing operations implemented under BSI, the Border Patrol conducted a repatriation effort in September 2003 in an attempt to reduce migrant deaths. Facing record numbers of deaths that year in the West Desert of Arizona (located in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector), the Lateral Repatriation Program (LRP) returned migrants apprehended in this area to other less hazardous places along the border. Originally the plan was to return the migrants to the interior of Mexico, but the Mexican government did not agree so migrants were returned to the southern por- tion of the Texas–Mexican border. It was believed that if migrants were returned directly across the Arizona border, as is standard practice, the migrants would simply reattempt entry, thereby once again risking their lives during the hottest summer months.4 The LRP lasted 23 days and processed over 6,200 migrants at a cost of $1,352,080.

3. Throughout the 1990s, border agents increasingly were subject to sniper attacks, assaults, and shootings during drug enforcement and were assaulted with sticks and stones by Mexican smugglers (see Human Events Staff, 1997; Pendleton, 1995).

4. The effort to repatriate illegal immigrants is not new. A more comprehensive repatriation campaign was carried out in the 1950s, but on this occasion, the purpose of the effort was different. Although the former repatriation program was a response to illegal immigration more generally, the 2003 program was specifically intended to reduce migrant casualty and was managed by the director of the BSI.

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The BSI is a harm-reduction strategy consistent with community- and problem-based policing trends found throughout the United States among local police jurisdictions (Goldstein, 1979, 1990; Kelling and Coles, 1996; Wilson and Kelling, 1982). Since about the 1970s, a paradigm shift in U.S. policing emerged that began a movement away from exclusive reliance on rapid response and routine patrols. New ideas called for greater police–community interaction, a proactive focus on identifying and deal- ing with specific community problems, and the use of data analysis to inform operations. Although the Border Patrol overall has adopted some community-based strategies (such as bike patrol in some border towns), most operations are firmly set in professional era practice. The BSI, how- ever, is more reflective of a problem-based approach because it focuses proactively on life saving and harm reduction and uses data recording to inform when, where, and how border deaths occur. The BSI represents an opportunity to understand how proactive policing might be applied in new contexts, such as in the case of migrant deaths.

Given the current geopolitical environment, removing border security hardly seems a feasible policy option. There have been recent proposals for de facto amnesty and temporary worker programs, but it is uncertain whether these would adequately alleviate the flow of illegal entries, thereby reducing migrant deaths. This uncertainty occurs for several rea- sons. First, policy proposals that include these options also call for increased border security. Just as enhanced border security has correlated with increased migrant deaths, greater border security also leads to greater reliance on human smugglers whose drive for profit can lead to migrant deaths (Guerette and Clarke, 2005). Second, amnesty programs will likely lead to even more immigration (Andreas, 2000). Granting asylum (or paths to citizenship) will reaffirm current smuggling networks and will lure other would-be migrants hoping to benefit from any immediate or future amnesty programs. Third, the yearly allowable entries called for under guest worker programs are not sufficient to offset the yearly flow of immi- gration. Recent proposals stipulate up to 200,000 allowable entries. With over 1 million apprehensions along the southwest border each year, the remainder will be left with only unauthorized opportunities for entry into the United States.

If open borders (or even loosened borders) are not likely in the near term, then can proactive harm-reduction strategies be relied on to make the border safer? The purpose of this article is to examine whether such practices, particularly those of the Border Patrol, serve as a viable appara- tus to save migrant lives. To what extent have actions taken under BSI impacted the rate of migrant deaths along the U.S.–Mexico border? Are

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BORSTAR effective at saving migrant lives? Did the 2003 LRP prevent migrants from dying? The following analyses address these and related questions. First, a discussion of the data and analytical framework used to carry out this study is presented.


Data on the frequency of individual migrant deaths5 were gathered from multiple sources. For evaluation of BSI impact, analyses rely on data from state and national vital registration systems compiled by Eschbach et al. (2001) as well as statistics in the BSI Incident Tracking System. Vital regis- tration system data were used because it provides a baseline for compari- son of trends in numbers of migrant deaths for an extended period of time. The BSI Incident Tracking System does not allow for this baseline as data collection and tracking of deaths did not systematically begin until 1999. The total time span of inquiry was from 1984 to 2003.6 It is possible that deaths recorded in the BSI tracking system and the vital registration sys- tems differ because of varying classification systems and collection proce- dures, but one study indicated that these differences are small.7 Even so, caution should be used when interpreting results from a single analysis of data derived from two separate collection processes.



To account for changes in the volume of illegal immigration over time, yearly U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions for the southwest border were used. The limitations of relying on apprehension data are well docu- mented (Eschbach et al., 2001; Espenshade, 1995) and despite efforts to develop a more precise measure of illegal migrant flow little progress has been made. Apprehension figures are not a direct measure of illegal

5. The BSI Incident Tracking system maintains both individual and event death counts. However, the vital registration data counts only individuals, which meant that the analysis had to be based on counts of individual deaths, not of events. As most cases involve single deaths, whichever is used—individuals or incidents—the general picture will be similar.

6. Vital registration data were compiled from Eschbach et al., 2001 for the years 1984 to 1998. BSI Incident Tracking System figures were used for years 1999 to 2003. Yearly death figures derived from the BSI Incident Tracking System used in this study may diverge from numbers released publicly by the Border Patrol. This divergence is from retrospective editing of the data system in keeping with methodological protocols as more information about each incident is learned.

7. Reyes et al. (2002) compared U.S. vital registration data with USBP data for 1998 and found a small difference of 22.

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migrant flow, but they are a function of both Border Patrol activity and the number of migrants attempting illegal entry. To deal with these diffi- culties, most efforts have tried to use adjustments of apprehension data. For instance, a study by Eschbach et al. (2001) took the log of monthly apprehensions and the log of monthly border patrol man hours, regressed them on one another, and then used the residual as a measure of unde- tected illegal migrant traffic. In their analysis, they found the residual measure to be highly consistent with straight apprehensions (p. 16) and eventually went back to using straight apprehensions in subsequent parts of their analysis (p. 19). Others have also relied on apprehension data as a general measure of migratory activity in the analysis of migrant deaths (Reyes et al., 2002:65).8


Recent ideas in crime prevention studies suggest that mechanisms rather than causes should be identified that act within various contexts to explain specific outcomes (Pawson and Tilley, 1997). In this study, two “mecha- nisms” were specifically examined: (1) The impact of BORSTAR teams and (2) The LRP of 2003. Data for BORSTAR involvement in border deaths and rescues were introduced into the BSI Incident tracking system in 2002 but was not systematically recorded until 2003. To determine BORSTAR effectiveness, the 2003 data were used. In separate analyses, the impact of the LRP (as an independent variable) on migrant deaths was examined during the time period in which it took place.


Data on the gender of deceased or rescued migrants, their age, and the number of accompanying migrants were also used in some analyses. Data for these variables were collected from the BSI Incident Tracking System.

8. The Border Patrol does maintain records on what are referred to as “get-a- ways” based on observations by border agents in the field. These numbers ostensibly represent an indicator of successful illegal entries and as such could arguably be used to measure migrant traffic volumes. Many of these figures are derived using an ancient Native American tactic referred to as “sign cutting” in which Border Patrol agents smooth border terrain by dragging old tires behind a truck. Smooth sand and dirt allows agents to count series of footprints, thereby determining the approximate number of migrant crossings. After footprints are found, the terrain is resmoothed to identify sub- sequent crossings. However, the reliability and validity of these figures is suspect because much of the terrain along the border does not consist of dirt that can be smoothed and the extent that “sign cutting” is employed varies across sectors. In short, despite efforts to devise a more precise measure of illegal migrant flow apprehension, data provide the most reliable indicator.

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Three areas of analysis were undertaken to understand the impact of BSI operations on migrant deaths. First, an aggregate assessment of rates of migrant casualty examined trends before and after BSI implementation. Second, a comparison of whether BORSTAR agents performed better than regular line agents in saving migrant lives was performed. Third, the 2003 LRP was evaluated to determine its effectiveness in reducing migrant deaths.

To assess the aggregate impact of BSI operations, a simple interrupted time series design was used (Cook and Campbell, 1979). The range of analysis was from 1985 to 2003 which was sufficient to determine migrant death trends but did not allow for ARIMA modeling.9 The time series was computed using the rate of migrant deaths per 100,000 border apprehensions.

A series of bivariate and multivariate analyses was employed to deter- mine BORSTAR effectiveness. Bivariate analysis comprised a crosstab comparison of deaths and rescues by BORSTAR or line agent personnel. Analysis of BORSTAR was conducted only for the Tucson sector where they operate more frequently and only for year 2003 when recording prac- tices of their involvement in the BSI Tracking system are most reliable. For multivariate analysis of BORSTAR effectiveness, logistic regression was employed to determine differences in the outcome of death for BOR- STAR and line agents while taking into account gender, age, and number of accompanying victims. Logistic regression was used because it allows for determinations of the extent to which a dichotomous dependent varia- ble is influenced by a set of independent variables (Bohrnstedt and Knoke, 1994; Neter et al., 1996). Thus, BSI Incident Tracking data were coded in a dichotomous arrangement with death coded as 1 and rescue coded as 0. The use of logistic regression also allows for computation of odds ratios to compare the odds of death for each variable. Assessments of differences in the outcome of death in relation to gender, age, and accompanying migrants were used in the regression model to account for their affect on migrant deaths.

To evaluate LRP impact, two analyses were performed. First, compari- son was made between the numbers of exposure-heat deaths recorded in the Tucson sector during September 2003 (when LRP was implemented) with the number of same death types during the same month the prior year. Second, a quasi-experimental design with two nonequivalent com- parison groups was used to (1) compare Tucson’s change in relation to other similarly situated sectors; (2) to determine whether the relocation of

9. ARIMA models generally require around 100 data points for reliable analysis.

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migrants to the Texas sectors simply displaced the death problem to those areas; and (3) whether the receiving sectors experienced a diffusion of benefit. Displacement refers to the relocation of a problem (i.e., migrant deaths) to another area as a result of the intervention (i.e., the LRP). Dif- fusion of benefit represents the opposite of displacement referring to a shared reduction in the occurrence of death even though the specific inter- vention did not occur in those areas.

In doing so, two comparison areas were designated: a control and a buffer (Table 1). The purpose of the control area is to determine whether other similarly situated sectors that were not involved in the LRP exper- ienced declines similar to Tucson. If the control area also shows a decline, then it suggests that the LRP may not be effective and something else could have caused the decline in Tucson sector. The purpose of the buffer area is to determine whether the relocation of migrants to the receiving sectors caused an increase of deaths in those sectors (displacement) or a decrease in deaths (diffusion of benefit). If the death rate increases in these sectors compared with the previous year, then it suggests that dis- placement has occurred. If the death rate decreases, then it suggests that a diffusion of benefit has taken place.


Comparisons Composition Purpose Reasoning

Treatment Tucson sector To determine whether A decrease in deaths area migrant death rates suggests effectiveness.

increased or decreased. An increase does not.

Control area El Centro and To determine whether If the control area San Diego other similarly situated also declined, then it sectors sectors that were not suggests LRP is not

involved in LRP effective and experienced declines something else caused similar to Tucson. the decline.

Buffer area McAllen, To determine whether If death rate increases Laredo, Del Rio, the relocation of in these sectors from and El Paso migrants to these sectors the previous year, sectors caused an increase of then it may suggest

deaths in those sectors displacement. If it (displacement) or a decreases, then it decrease in deaths suggests diffusion of (diffusion of benefit). benefit.

The control area was drawn from El Centro and San Diego sectors, which generally have maintained similar rates of death in recent years and

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are located on the western portion of the border like Tucson. To compare deaths across sectors, the numbers of death were standardized into rates of death per 10,000 monthly sector apprehensions. Rates per 10,000 (as opposed to the more common 100,000) were used because the numbers of apprehensions become smaller when disaggregated by the sector level. For the control area, rates were averaged to produce a single composite mea- sure of the death rate in those sectors.

The four Texas-Mexico sectors – El Paso, McAllen, Laredo, and Del Rio – were designated as the buffer area to determine whether displace- ment or diffusion of benefit occurred. These were used as the buffer because the migrants who were apprehended in Tucson sector were evenly relocated and released back into Mexico at each of these sectors.10 Like the comparison area, rates of death per 10,000 monthly sector apprehen- sions for each of the four sectors were computed and the average was used as a single composite measure. The pre-time period was September 2002, and the post-time period was September 2003. A series of coefficients was computed for the LRP based on a technique for evaluating crime preven- tion programs, which allows for determinations of displacement and diffu- sion (Bowers and Johnson, 2003). These coefficients include determination of gross and net effects of the LRP; the latter determines program effects in relation to changes in the comparison areas (See the Appendix for more detail).



Figure 1 provides yearly rates of migrant deaths per 100,000 apprehen- sions from 1985 to 2003. Two general peaks can be observed, one in 1988 and the other in 2003. Prior to the implementation of BSI in 1998, the numbers of migrant deaths were actually on the decline after the 1988 peak until just before the BSI program began. Rates of death were reduced in 1999, but then they began to increase, reaching their highest peaks in 2003. Even though the post-BSI increase misses significance at the 0.05 level,11 the trend lines of the pre- and post-periods are distinctly different: with a negative slope in the pre-time period and a positive slope during the post-BSI period. If we accept apprehensions as a proxy mea- sure of border activity, it seems the BSI program has not reduced migrant deaths overall.

10. The number of migrants sent to each sector is as follows: Del Rio 1,576; El Paso 1,575; Laredo 1,454; and McAllen 1,634.

11. The difference in pre- and post-BSI means becomes significant at p < 0.10; (t = –1.912, 17 df).

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