In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Death at the US-Mexico Border

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Regional Analysis
  • Stories, Vignettes, and Biographies of Migrant Deaths
  • Border Patrol Safety Programs
  • Government Documents
  • Forensic Science and Public Health Perspectives
  • Activist and Critical Perspectives
  • Human Rights

Latino Studies Death at the US-Mexico Border
Néstor P. Rodríguez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0097


Hundreds of Mexicans, Central Americans, and other migrants die annually at the US-Mexico border when they attempt to enter the United States without visas by trekking across desert terrain, or by swimming across the Rio Grande River dividing Texas and Mexico border. After the US Border Patrol, in order to halt illegal crossings, closed down in the 1990s the safest border crossing points used by unauthorized migrants, usually near urban centers, the undocumented migrant flow, often organized by coyotes (smugglers), was redirected to dangerous border areas where migrants die from heat exposure, thirst, drownings, assaults, automobile accidents, and so forth. Research in the late 1990s by sociologists at the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston (Eschbach, et al. 1999, cited under General Overviews) introduced the topic of “border deaths” in policy discussions of US immigration, as well as created the subfield of migrant deaths in undocumented migration research. Several studies (e.g., see Regional Analysis) have been conducted since the mid-1990s, addressing the occurrence of migrant deaths at the US-Mexico border, but the subfield is still in a nascent stage due to the difficulty in obtaining migrant mortality data collected with consistent research methods using standardized death classification criteria. Nonetheless, the US Border Patrol has reported annual counts at the US-Mexico border since 1998 (see US Border Patrol death statistics cited under Government Documents). US studies of migrant deaths at the border do not usually include data of migrant deaths on the Mexican side of the border, resulting in undercounts of migrant deaths at the US-Mexico border region. The numbers of these deaths on the Mexican border side may have increased significantly since 2005 after criminal groups in Mexico started kidnapping and murdering migrants crossing Mexico. A recent development in the topic of migrant deaths at the US-Mexico border has been attempts to identify the remains of migrant fatalities through forensic science in order to help relatives locate their missing migrant family members (e.g., see forensic articles in Forensic Science and Public Health Perspective). Humanitarian organizations and analysts have addressed the issue of how migrant deaths represent violation of the human rights of migrants by the implementation of a US border control policy that does not adequately consider the fatal risks created for the undocumented migration flow into the United States.

General Overviews

The citations included in this section give overviews of migrant death patterns or related issues for the whole US-Mexico border. Most of the citations address a variety of death-related issues; this topic introduction points out the most salient issues. Brown 2001 uses a journalistic introduction to discuss migrant deaths and comments on data quality; the author also makes a comparison with migrant deaths in Europe. Cornelius 2001 relates migrant death counts to border enforcement policy. Dunn 2009 describes how a Border Patrol operation to control the border in El Paso, Texas, in 1993 began to redirect undocumented migration to other border areas and change the death patterns. Eschbach, et al. 1999 and Eschbach, et al. 2003 analyze changing death patterns related to changing border enforcement activity. Haddal 2010 addresses the issue of data quality and missing data, as well as Border Patrol safety programs. Massey, et al. 2002 calculates the migrant death increase after the implementation of the border control strategy of Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector in California. Meissner, et al. 2013 provides recent updates on migrant death issues, including the role of smugglers and Border Patrol safety programs.

  • Brown, Mary Elizabeth. “Death in the Desert.” Migration World Magazine 29 (May–June 2001): 17–23.

    Journalistic account of thirteen migrant deaths at the US-Mexico border. Description of humanitarian attempts to reduce deaths numbers on US side and formation of Grupo Beta on Mexican side. Compares migrant deaths in US to deaths in Europe. Concludes that migrants die at the border because their humanity is not respected.

  • Cornelius, Wayne A. “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Control Policy.” Population and Development Review 27 (2001): 661–685.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2001.00661.x

    An analysis of how new US border enforcement policy at the US-Mexico border affected apprehension of unauthorized migrants and had consequences for unauthorized migration flows, including an increase of migrant deaths at the border. Analysis uses death data provided by Mexican consulates in border areas.

  • Dunn, Timothy J. Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation That Remade Immigration Enforcement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

    Relates Border Patrol Operation Blockade (renamed Operation Hold the Line) in El Paso to changing patterns of migrant deaths at U.S.-Mexico border, from the perspective of human rights. Gives detailed comparisons of death statistics for the whole border, given by various sources from 1999 to 2007. Also offers special focus on deaths in the El Paso Border Patrol sector.

  • Eschbach, Karl, Jacqueline Hagan, and Nestor Rodriguez. “Deaths during Undocumented Migration: Trends and Policy Implications in the New Era of Homeland Security.” In In Defense of the Alien. Vol. 26. Edited by Joseph Fugolo, 37–52. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 2003.

    Updates data and analysis given in Eschbach, et al. 1999 to 2002 of migrant deaths at US-Mexico border. Uses new death data to make a strong argument relating deaths to new border enforcement policy. Discusses impact of 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States for border enforcement policy.

  • Eschbach, Karl, Jacqueline Hagan, Nestor Rodriguez, Rubén Hernández, and Stanley Bailey. “Death at the Border.” International Migration Review 33 (1999): 430–454.

    DOI: 10.2307/2547703

    Article gives counts and causes of migrant deaths (such as drowning and environmental exposure) for seven border areas for 1993–1997. Estimates of migrant deaths on the Mexican border side are also provided. Article relates new border enforcement policy to the redirection of unauthorized migration to dangerous border areas where migrant deaths have increased.

  • Haddal, Chad C. Border Security: The Role of the U.S. Border Patrol. Congressional Research Service, 7–5700, RL32562. Washington, DC, 11 August 2010.

    Addresses incompleteness of migrant death data. Deaths on the Mexican side are not counted. Border Patrol started collecting data in 1998. Death counts compiled by using University of Houston research are given for 1985–1998, and for 1999–2009 with Border Patrol data. Border Patrol created Border Safety Initiative (BSI) to save migrant lives.

  • Massey, Douglas S., Jorje Durand, and N. J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.

    Calculates deaths rates per 100,000 crossings for whole border. Using data from 1986 to 1998, this book shows that Border Patrol implementation of Operation Gatekeeper causes 160 “extra deaths” of migrants each year.

  • Meissner, Doris, Donald M. Kerwin, Muzaffar Chishti, and Claire Bergeron. Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery. Migration Policy Institute. Washington, DC, January 2013.

    Reports that with increased border enforcement, smugglers have led migrants into more dangerous areas in California and Arizona, causing migrant deaths to increase. Number of deaths leveled off since 2005 and fell to 360 annually for the two-year period 2010–2011. Border Patrol has established safety initiatives.

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