Guest Commentary

Yet more migrants are going to die because the president put immigration reform on the backburner

The news out of the recent trilateral summit between Canada, Mexico and the United States is that the Obama administration will wait until 2010 to tackle immigration reform. The justification Obama offered for the delay is that his "plate is full" with more pressing issues: the economy, health care, two wars and so on.

For those concerned with the ongoing border crisis in Southern Arizona, the choice to delay reform is terrible news. As we speak, more migrants have died in fiscal 2009 (161) in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector than at the same point in 2008 (137), a particularly disturbing fact given the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence that illegal immigration is declining.

In early August, we learned that 209 Border Patrol agents were added to the Tucson Sector under the ludicrously mistitled "Operation Guardian." What the Border Patrol would have you believe is that this buildup will enable agents to carry out the mission of its mantra that "a secure border is a safe border." While this thesis may have been tenable five years ago, it no longer holds water. Quite the opposite, in fact, since there is a growing amount of empirical data suggesting that migrant deaths in the Tucson Sector correlate with law enforcement more than any other variable used in research and analysis.

If you press the Border Patrol, they will be unable to account for increases in three separate but related statistical trends: The rate of deaths is up; the risk of dying is up; and the average distance that migrants die from the nearest road is up. With these trends in mind, we should not be surprised that the number of deaths is up, too.

Nevertheless, let's take each of them in turn.

The rate of migrant deaths in the Tucson Sector is increasing. This might seem counterintuitive, given the overall decline in illegal immigration, but the data clearly shows that death rates do not correlate with border-crossing rates. While there is no means to accurately measure illegal-immigration flows, the standard surrogate historically has been apprehensions. According to the Border Patrol's own numbers, apprehensions dropped 35 percent between 2004 and 2008, and this downward trajectory continues to date. During the same period, however, the number of discovered bodies has always remained high, fluctuating between 180 and 230. Because the number of deaths has stayed more or less constant, the rate of deaths has increased relative to apprehensions.

So what about the risk of dying? The Arizona Daily Star (see "Death Count Rises With Border Restrictions," May 17) calculates the risk and rate of death similarly in that both are analyzed in terms of apprehensions. But the truth is that risk is a more complicated problem. The Daily Star claims that the risk of death is 17 times greater than it was in 1998, yet this number is based on apprehensions alone, and is therefore mathematically indistinguishable from the rate of deaths. There are other factors, however, that tell us the risk of death is going up.

Between 2000 and 2008, the last full year of available data, the average distance of deaths from the nearest road has grown from 3/4 of a mile to a desperate 4 miles. The Border Patrol and humanitarian groups like Humane Borders track the precise coordinates of each body discovered in the desert. When the data are plotted on a map, they reveal what should be clear to anyone who has read about the Border Patrol's interest in the utility of all terrain vehicles, horses and, of course, more agents.

Each of these sets of statistics, taken together or individually, does not imply a causal relationship with migrant deaths. The rate and risk of migrant deaths could increase even if the number of deaths decreases. Though risk is measured in terms of apprehensions alone, other factors may contribute, such as the average distance of deaths from the nearest road.

The bottom line: However you look at it, migrant deaths are up 18 percent from 2008, and the correlations with law enforcement are strong. So 2009 looks to be another year for the books. We should not be happy about a delay in immigration reform or about additional agents, no matter how many.

Kent Walker is a freelance writer based in Tucson. He has been a volunteer for Humane Borders since 2007.

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