All-time high migrant death rate along US-Mexico border: prevention in immigration reform?

According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 477 individuals died along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2012 during their attempt to enter the U.S.  That's an all-time high rate of 13.3 deaths per 10,000 CBP apprehensions.  It compares to a rate of 8 deaths per 10,000 in 2010, and 4 per 10,000 in 2005.

The data was assembled by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) in the policy brief "How many more deaths? The moral case for a temporary worker program."   At a time when fewer migrants are attempting to enter the U.S. illegally, the author attributes the escalating death rate to two related factors: (1) the lack of legal temporary visas for low-skilled workers; and (2) the build-up of enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Reading this recently released report reminded me of the policy statement Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the US–Mexico Border adopted in 2009 by the American Public Health Association (APHA).  It also pointed a finger at the "militarization of the US–Mexico border" for migrants' deaths.

"The Border Patrol’s policy of 'prevention through deterrence' has resulted in the purposeful displacement and diversion of migrants into more treacherous and dangerous zones to cross, such as deserts, rivers, canals, and rugged terrain.  ...[T]hese border deterrence operations serve to prevent migrants from crossing in well-established urban corridors where they historically have relied on familiar networks for assistance and instead deflect migrants to more remote rural areas where they are exposed to greater dangers and the risk of death, especially in the harsher environments of deserts and mountains.  ...In their quest to evade U.S. enforcement operations in well-established urban crossing areas, migrants are squeezed into remote areas where they are exposed to the extreme elements of deserts and mountains and suffer dehydration, hyperthermia, hypothermia, and drowning."

Both the APHA policy and NFAP's acknowledge that the roots of the problem lies in economic policies of the sending countries and the U.S.  Simply put: most immigrants to the U.S. ---especially those who risk their lives crossing dangerous terrain---come to earn a living.  They come to work and make a better life for themselves and their families.   In the bi-partisan framework for immigration reform, the Senators concur:

"The overwhelming majority of the 327,000 illegal entrants apprehended by CBP in FY2011 were seeking employment in the United States."

It goes on:

"...Our proposal will provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs."

Just how such a program would look, however, seems to be a major sticking point in negotiations between labor (AFL-CIO) and business (US Chamber of Commerce) about immigration reform. As Dave Jamieson at HuffPost wrote:

"Neither the business lobby nor organized labor is thrilled with how these visa programs currently operate. Businesses complain there's too much red tape and too few visas to go around, while unions and worker advocates say the programs in their current forms drag down the wage floor and fail to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation."

We too have written about the abuses endured by many workers under the existing H2-A, H2-B and other guest worker programs (here, here, here, here.)  The problems include the visas being tied to a single employer, access to justice when labor abuses occur, economic coercion, among others.  The International Labor Recruitment Working Group has a blueprint that could be part of the solution.

But changes in the guest worker program are not the answer to the tragedy of migrants' deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border.   Immigrants who risk their lives to cross into the U.S. unauthorized are not entering with a guest worker visa.  They are coming because there are too many U.S. employers who hire unauthorized workers.  These employers can pay them a lower wage than native workers, and can ignore other labor and civil rights laws.  Their lawbreaking is pretty much ignored.

A key step in halting the unauthorized flow of labor is "forcing U.S. employers to comply with the law," writes Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI):

"If no employer would hire them, immigrants would come legally or not at all.  That is why the principles for reform include effective workplace verification and strong penalties to deter employers from cheating.  The broken system in place since 1986 has allowed tens of thousands of employers to recruit and hire unauthorized workers with no real fear of getting caught or punished.  Only the workers themselves faced harsh consequences, including criminal prosecution and deportation."

Eisenbrey's colleague at EPI Daniel Costa notes the huge disparity between federal dollars spent on border enforcement compared to labor standards enforcement.  The $17.9 Billion spent on immigration enforcement in 2012 is more than 11 times the amount spent on labor law enforcement.  No wonder law-breaking employers continue to recruit and employ unauthorized workers.  There's little chance of getting caught.

The current discourse on immigration reform revolves around phrases like "securing our borders" and "creating a path to citizenship."   In the months ahead, I'll be reading the fine print for plans to beef up labor law enforcement and much stiffer sanctions against these cheaters.  Without it, death on the border of immigrants seeking work in the U.S. will continue.



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Thanks Celeste. As we move forward with immigration reform it will be important to emphasize the human rights of migrants. Human rights should not be dependent on the individual's relationship with the nation state.

By Amy Liebman (not verified) on 30 Mar 2013 #permalink