September 30, 2009
SAN DIEGO – U.S., Mexican and international officials must recognize the deaths of migrants occurring during unauthorized crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border as an international humanitarian crisis and respond with reforms that make human life a priority, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH). The report, Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border, finds that border deaths have increased despite fewer unauthorized crossings due to the economic downturn.
The release of the report marks the 15th anniversary of the border enforcement policy Operation Gatekeeper that concentrated border agents and added walls and fencing along populated areas, intentionally forcing migrants to hostile environments and natural barriers that increase the incidence of injury and death.
“The current policies in place on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have created a humanitarian crisis that has led to the deaths of more than 5,000 people,” said Kevin Keenan, Executive Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Because of deadly practices and policies like Operation Gatekeeper, the death toll continues to rise unabated despite the decrease in unauthorized crossings due to economic factors.”
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Some of the report’s major findings include:
- Border deaths have increased despite the economic downturn, fewer migrant crossers and a steady drop in apprehensions.
- In the last 15 years, the deaths occurring during unauthorized border crossings have been a predictable and inhumane outcome of border-security policies like Operation Gatekeeper.
- Migrants’ risk of death during unauthorized crossings has increased in spite of government programs that attempt to reduce the harmful effects of border enforcement policies and strategies.
- The ongoing deaths of migrants have exposed government incompliance with international law obligations in the treatment of the dead and their families.
Since Operation Gatekeeper went into effect in 1994, an estimated 5,600 migrants have died while attempting unauthorized border crossings. In response to government failures to prevent migrant deaths, many organizations have set up water stations, desert medical camps, humanitarian-aid patrols and other rescue and recovery operations in an attempt to save lives along the U.S.-Mexican border area. As the report details, these activities have been increasingly met with government opposition and punishment.
“By any measure, Operation Gatekeeper is a failure. It didn’t reduce unauthorized border crossings, the economy did. It has, however, cost thousands of people their lives,” said Andrea Guerrero, Field and Policy Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Instead of policies that foster fatalities, we need sensible, humane immigration and border policies that prioritize human life over death.”
The report recommends actions that the U.S. and Mexican governments should take to protect and advance the human right to life of migrants, including:
- Recognize border crossing deaths as an international humanitarian crisis.
- Adopt sensible, humane immigration and border policies.
- Shift more U.S. Border Patrol resources to search and rescue.
- Support nongovernmental humanitarian efforts at the border.
- Direct government agencies to allow humanitarian organizations to do their work to save lives and recover remains.
- Establish a binational, one-stop resource for rescue and recovery calls and convene all data collecting agencies to develop a uniform system.
- Invite international involvement.
Javier Garcia, whose testimony about his brother who died while crossing the border is featured in the report, said, “I hope that my brother’s case is taken as an example of what should not happen, that things change.”
John Carlos Frey’s documentary, The 800 Mile Wall, will be screening at Imperial Valley College on the evening of Monday, November 2, the Day of the Dead. Details will be posted on our website as they develop.
For more information about the ACLU’s work on immigrants’ rights, visit our national office's website.