President Donald Trump has shut down the government to address what he’s calling a “humanitarian crisis” at the border. While the deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody last year were tragedies, the evidence, detailed in a new analysis from the Cato Institute, indicates that the border has grown safer in recent years and that Trump’s “solutions,” a border wall and an end to asylum, would undo this progress.
Border Patrol records show that from 1998, when the records begin, to December, 7,529 immigrants died along the border. Deaths peaked in 2005 with 492. Last year, the number was down to 281, and based on the first 70 days of the year, the border will see around 167 deaths in budget year 2019, the fewest since the 1990s.
But deaths can increase or decrease simply due to an increase or decrease in crossings. The total number of crossings is unknown, but researchers use the number of Border Patrol apprehensions as a proxy to calculate the annual death rate.
By this measure, a clear trend emerges. From 1998 to 2012, the death rate rose almost continuously from 17 to 132 deaths per 100,000 apprehensions — a nearly eightfold increase. The fatal increase closely parallels the construction of the current border fences. The death rate more than doubled from 1998 to 2006, while the number of miles of fence tripled. Then, from 2006 to 2012, the fence tripled in length again, and the death rate also tripled.
No one should have been surprised. The Government Accountability Office had already explained to Congress in 2001 that Border Patrol’s strategy of building fences and deploying manpower in urban areas “assumed that migrant traffic would shift to more remote areas” and that “the strategy has resulted in an increase in deaths.” The office reiterated these conclusions in 2006.
If building out the fence worked, more and more people should have died. And they did, at first. But then the death rate suddenly halved from 2012 to 2014 and remained well below its peak through 2018. Though it’s based on just a couple of months, early figures indicate that the death rate in 2019 could end up being 80 percent below its peak, the lowest rate since 2000.
The border is much safer than it was, and the reason is simply that most illegal crossers are not sneaking into the country. Around 2013, the flow shifted away from Mexico and to Central America, where families escaping poverty and violence sought asylum in the U.S.
Rather than evading agents, Central Americans started to seek them out, turning themselves in so that they can ask for asylum. From 2012 to 2018, the number of formal asylum requests increased from nearly 14,000 to more than 99,000, and arrivals of Central American children and parents, who the agency processes similarly to asylees, also took off.
Some politicians have claimed that people request asylum only after they fail to avoid Border Patrol, but a recent Department of Homeland Security-commissioned report found that this isn’t the case and that asylum has resulted in far fewer people sneaking into the country overall.
The result is that immigrants have stopped taking exceptionally long journeys across the border. From 2012 to 2016, the share of immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol 20 miles or more from the border fell from 27 to 15 percent, while those apprehended within 1 mile of the border rose from 33 to 58 percent.
Shorter trips during which the immigrants can immediately seek out help from the Border Patrol translates to fewer deaths. If deaths had continued at the 2012 rate — before the asylum surge — 1,336 more deaths would have occurred along the border from 2013 to 2019. On the other hand, if deaths had continued at the 1998 rate — before most of the border fence — 4,601 fewer deaths would have occurred from 1998 to 2019.
Trump’s ideas would make journeys more deadly along the border. He wants to build hundreds of miles of 30-foot fences. This will cause immigrants to cross what Trump refers to as “natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water” just to turn themselves in. At the same time, Trump wants to end asylum as it exists now and force everyone back to Mexico. This would cause migrants to try to evade detection, leading to more deaths in remote areas of the border.
Of course, the Trump administration could go the other direction and make the process much safer by processing asylum-seekers at legal ports of entry. It is currently turning them away. Reversing this policy would prevent violations of the law — Trump’s purported goal — and keep immigrants safe. But Trump’s current ideas hold little benefit for security, safety or humanity.