Analysis Human Rights

As Family Members Seek Answers About Missing Loved Ones, Border Patrol Agency Blames Smugglers

Tina Vasquez

A new report highlighting the "crisis of disappearance" in U.S. borderlands says it "is not a natural or inevitable phenomenon but rather is a direct consequence of US border-enforcement policies and practices. This deadly process has ripped holes in families and communities that will last for generations."

During the summer of 2015, a group of migrants crossing through the South Texas desert were pursued by a Border Patrol helicopter. After one of the travelers in the group, Cirilio, never appeared at his final destination, his brother called La Coalición de Derechos Humanos’ Missing Migrant Crisis Line, a now-defunct hotline for people who are concerned that their loved ones crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have gone missing. According to another member of the group, who called the crisis line to let Cirilio’s family members know what happened, Cirilio was left alone “in the middle of the desert” suffering from heat exhaustion. He was never found.

As new report from two, Tucson, Arizona-based immigrants’ rights organizations—Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths—explains, “The exhaustion and dehydration experienced by Cirilio are frequent consequences of protracted Border Patrol chases. With water sources being scarce or polluted, dehydration sets in quickly during chase.”

To be released in three phases (with parts two and three set for a 2017 publication), the report shows how there has been a “crisis of disappearance” happening since U.S. Border Patrol launched its “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy in 1994. The policy involves averting border crossers who are attempting to enter the United States on foot.

The report’s introduction notes that Derechos Humanos publicly denounced the strategy and predicted it would displace, kill, and disappear thousands of people. Since then, the organization’s predictions have come true. Some border crossers who have gone missing have turned up at detention centers, while others’ remains were found at morgues or in the desert. In the worst cases, they were never heard from again.

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Border Patrol claims more than 6,000 migrants have died crossing into the United States since the 1990s, but audits of its data suggest the figure is closer to 8,600 people. But because there is no consensus on how to count the total number of deaths, the full extent of the crisis remains murky. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of Border Patrol, responded to the report in a statement, according to the Guardian, saying: “CBP values human life, and we collaborate closely with foreign government officials, law enforcement partners, and community organizations to educate potential migrants about the true dangers of crossing the border illegally.”

The agency went on to explain that “the Tucson sector Border Patrol deploys 36 rescue beacons and more than 230 agents trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), plus 54 Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) agents.”

It also blamed the deaths of border crossers on smugglers, the Guardian reported. “Smugglers lie, telling their ‘customers’ their passage will be safe, but in reality, the terrain is treacherous and the conditions are extreme. Many are led to their deaths by smugglers more concerned about making money than they are about the lives of others,” it said in its statement.

“The critique we hear the most from people is that Border Patrol is ‘just doing their job,'” one of the authors of the report, John Washington, told Rewire in a phone interview. “Our response is if Border Patrol’s job is creating a mass crisis of death and disappearance on the border, then we don’t think they should do their job.”

The first part of the report, called Deadly Apprehension Methods, sheds light on Border Patrol’s conduct for agents in pursuit, which the report’s authors say “diminish[es] and demean[s] the value of human life.” Part two of the report will focus on Border Patrol “destroying and interfering with life-saving Humanitarian Aid,” while part three will report on the “governmental agencies not providing emergency search and rescue responses to migrants in distress,” according to the report’s authors.

Washington explained that they were very intentional in their use of the word “disappeared” in the report for those whose whereabouts are unaccounted for after attempting to cross the border.

Governments have a long history of “disappearing” people, including El Salvador, where some of the migrants who disappeared in the Southwest borderlands originated from. But it’s also the language used by the families calling the Missing Migrant Crisis Line, who would say: “Estoy buscando a una persona desaparecida.” (I’m looking for a disappeared person.)

Those pushed into the desert by Border Patrol and who ultimately die, due to the myriad ways a person alone in the desert can die, have not endured an “enforced disappearance” in the classic sense, at least not as defined by the United Nations. As Washington pointed out, “there are no armed goons ripping people from their homes in the middle of the night and torturing them and disappearing them.”

But for those working with family members of migrants who have gone missing, when migrants are pushed deeper and deeper into the harsh desert as part of a state-sanctioned strategy, that sounds a lot like torture. And when those same migrants are never seen or heard from again, that sounds a lot like disappearance.

“The effects of this violence are multidimensional, as it is experienced both by those who go missing and by loved ones left behind in a state of limbo, simultaneously fearing the worst while refusing to give up hope, and seeking any tangible information that could provide some closure,” the report explains. “We recognize the weight that the language of disappearance holds; we use it to call attention to the fact that disappearance is not a natural or inevitable phenomenon but rather is a direct consequence of US border-enforcement policies and practices. This deadly process has ripped holes in families and communities that will last for generations.”

“The Landscape as an Ally”

A volunteer at No More Deaths, Washington feels that Border Patrol is directly responsible for the thousands of migrants who have disappeared since 1994, because the ways in which it attempts to apprehend people who are crossing are “inherently dangerous.”

The number of migrants coming to the United States increased rapidly in the mid-1990s after then-President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. As noted by the Global Justice Alliance, that trade deal “destroyed the Mexican farming sector,” devastated local economies on both sides of the border, and hit those in rural Mexico the hardest, forcing people to migrate in search of work.

During this time, under Prevention Through Deterrence, the United States militarized urban border areas in an effort to steer migrants away from ports of entry and into “geographically harsher, more remote and hazardous border regions,” according to a March 2010 Congressional Research Service report shedding light on the decades-old program. This effort provided “Border Patrol agents with a tactical advantage over illegal border crossers and smugglers,” that report further explains.

Washington said to Rewire that the government was aware of the repercussions of sending migrants into dangerous areas. “Of course the U.S. government knew that Prevention Through Deterrence would send people to their deaths,” Washington explained. “If you look at the strategic plan for Prevention Through Deterrence, it is clearly stated that they were going to use the landscape as an ally. Everything that’s outlined implies greater suffering. These are people in charge of the Southwest border, of course they knew that walking for five days in these conditions would kill people.”

Border Patrol’s strategic plan for 1994 pointed out how the northern U.S. border’s “sub-zero” temperatures and the southern border’s “searing heat” can have an effect on “illegal entry traffic,” as well as how mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and valleys are “natural barriers to passage.”

“Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger,” the plan stated.

Border Patrol also outlined “indicators of success,” which include fee increases by smugglers, more violence at attempted entries, and the potential for more protests against immigration policy, among others.

“If functioning as intended,” Disappeared’s authors write in the report’s introduction, “Prevention Through Deterrence would reshape migration to become more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught.”

For years now, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been pushing to hold Border Patrol accountable “in the absence of any meaningful oversight,” and amid routine human rights violations that occur in the 100-mile border zone. This is a swath of land in which the Constitution doesn’t appear to matter and where Border Patrol agents “routinely ignore or misunderstand the limits of their legal authority,” the ACLU argues on its website.

The issues raised in Disappeared are compounded by the ACLU’s own findings, including Border Patrol agents receiving inadequate training; a lack of oversight by CBP and the Department of Homeland Security; and the “consistent failure” by CBP to hold Border Patrol agents accountable for abuse. “Although the 100-mile border zone is not literally ‘Constitution-free,’ the U.S. government frequently acts like it is,” the ACLU says.

In the years since the strategy was put into place, the methods for pushing border crossers into harsher terrain have only become more sophisticated, including armored border cities with walls, cameras, sensors, and “military-style infrastructure from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas,” according to the Disappeared report.

The report details Border Patrol’s “chase and scatter” approach to apprehension that places already-vulnerable migrants—who have been traveling for days with blistered feet in below-zero or 120-degree temperatures and with little food and water—in danger of death. During this phase of apprehension, migrants can be separated from their groups and guides, often dropping their belongings in the process, and chased farther into the wilderness.

These pursuits can last hours “as agents attempt to corral those fleeing on foot into choke points in order to apprehend them,” according to the report. The goal, presumably, is to exhaust them, but if migrants become injured in the process, such as by breaking a foot, they can ultimately die.

“When [migrants] see a Border Patrol agent who is effectively hunting them in the desert with a weapon drawn or in a vehicle or in a military-style helicopter, they run; that’s a natural reaction. But when they run, they are often injured, and that can be the beginning of the end for a lot of people,” said Washington.

This is what some believe happened to a 29-year-old man from El Salvador named Maycol. His family contacted the Migrant Crisis Line, saying he had gone missing the morning of August 27, 2015 in South Texas. A Border Patrol helicopter had spotted his group and during the ensuing chase in the desert, Maycol hurt his foot and was left behind. The last time his family heard from him was via text, when he told them he thought his foot was broken. His whereabouts are still unknown.

“We don’t think it’s possible for [Border Patrol] to make an attempt at apprehension without endangering migrants’ lives,” Washington said.

A Wound That “Never Closes”

In 2015, Derechos Humanos received more than 1,200 calls from the families of migrants who never made it to their final destinations. Launched in 2013 in response to a growing number of missing-person calls, the hotline coordinators worked in partnership with Águilas del Desierto in California, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, the South Texas Human Rights Center, and the Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes in Mexico, among other groups. The report also notes that every day, consulates and medical examiners’ offices receive a deluge of calls from concerned family members.

Derechos Humanos was recently forced to shut down its Missing Migrant Crisis Line because of a lack of resources.

By the time it shut down earlier this year, it was receiving more than 2,000 calls that it didn’t have the capacity to handle, despite having never advertised its services, explained Washington. Simply through word of mouth and Google searches, concerned families found their way to the hotline. Washington said that he often thinks of the thousands of family members who didn’t know there was anywhere to turn for information, and whose loved ones’ final resting places will never be known.

Washington told Rewire that it’s hard to come by numbers for the disappeared, and perhaps even harder to decide when a person should be marked as disappeared. Derechos Humanos does everything from calling detention centers and morgues to physically looking for people in the desert. The organization considers a case closed when a person’s final whereabouts can be confirmed.

“How do you confirm a disappearance? Maybe they’ll turn up later, but a lot of times they don’t,” he said. “It requires a lot of waiting. If you can’t immediately track the person down, you have to keep following up to see if any new information emerges. Border Patrol puts the number of deaths since 2000 at 6,000; I believe it’s tens of thousands.”

When research began on the Disappeared report a year and a half ago, the authors did not anticipate that Donald Trump would become president-elect or that the Border Patrol’s union, the National Border Patrol Council, would endorse the Republican. An “overwhelming concern,” Washington said, is how Trump’s promises to expand the border and double the number of Border Patrol agents will exacerbate the already catastrophic conditions migrants are facing in the Southwest borderlands.

“If [the United States] double down on these things, if there is more wall pushing [migrants] further into the desert, more Border Patrol agents hunting them, we’re only going to see more deaths and disappearances,” Washington said. “And when they die out there, their families have an open wound, and that wound never closes.”

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