Tess Herdman

August 10th, 2023

How the CBP’s “Prevention Through Deterrence” Policy Contributes to Migrant Deaths at the U.S./Mexico Border

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Tess Herdman

August 10th, 2023

How the CBP’s “Prevention Through Deterrence” Policy Contributes to Migrant Deaths at the U.S./Mexico Border

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

“We did believe that geography would be an ally for us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing through the Arizona desert would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.” — U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency head, Doris Meissner in 2000. 

In 1994, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) introduced a new policy that they termed “prevention through deterrence.” By blocking popular crossing spots and forcing migrants into the dangerous desert areas and river crossings, the agency believed they could reduce the number of crossing attempts. Since then, the strategy has not worked. But it has led to an increase in the number of migrant deaths. 

CBP has clearly prioritized minimizing the number of people processed at the border over the loss of human life. They have the statistics of what the past 28 years of the “prevention through deterrence” policy have resulted in – 2022 was the deadliest year ever recorded for migrants attempting to cross the border, amounting to over 800 deaths. There have been 7,505 official migrant deaths recorded since 1998. More than 2,000 of those deceased are still unidentified. 

Effects of CBP Policies and Dangers of Border Patrol

A report found that a migrant who attempted an illegal border crossing in 2012 was eight times more likely to die trying than someone trying to cross in 2003. Despite the United States heavily leading global discussions on human rights, including those of migrants and refugees, their own border with Mexico is now one of the deadliest land borders in the world. 

It is probable that the number of migrant deaths is higher than what is officially recorded – estimates also only include remains that have been recovered. In 2021, CBP officially changed how they record the deaths of migrants to only include those that occur in the custody or proximity of a CBP agent, yet another decision by agency leaders that deprioritizes and obscures the effects of their policies on human lives. 

By increasing physical barriers along the border, increasing the number of agents on patrol near cities and towns, and integrating new technology into their monitoring, CBP has purposefully pushed migrants away from the safest crossing points. Border Patrol agents working as part of CBP have also expanded the area they patrol to up to 100,000 square miles, pushing migrants further away from populated areas. This decision places more value on reducing the number of people reaching the border and being processed than on the safety of the men, women, and children who are attempting to reach the United States.

Effects of Trump-Era Policies (How Trump Worsened the Border)

Lingering immigration policies from former President Donald Trump, including blocking legal recognition of asylum seekers and increasing deportations, continue to push migrants onto more dangerous routes. Medical experts working along the U.S.-Mexico border have noted that the increased height of the border walls have correlated with an increase in deaths and serious injuries from scaling attempts. For instance, one hospital in San Diego reported five times the intake for injuries resulting from the wall since these Trump-era height increases. 

CBP agents often chase migrants through dangerous terrain. Groups of migrants traveling together can become separated, get (severely) injured, while others may become lost. Based on data from the crisis hotline of No More Deaths, an advocacy organization based in Arizona, Border Patrol is more than twice as likely to take part in directly causing a person to go missing by dangerous enforcement tactics than they are to participate in finding a distressed person.”

In June 2022, the death of 51 migrants in San Antonio, Texas drew international attention to the lengths migrants have gone to in order to avoid CBP detection. “Stacks of bodies” were found in the back of an abandoned truck. The victims had been trapped with no air conditioning or water in temperatures that reached 39 degrees Celsius, covered in steak seasoning to mask any sign of human smuggling. The U.S. government claims that they “made the global fight against human trafficking a policy priority,” but it was their own policies which led to the deadliest human trafficking incident in modern U.S. history. 

A similar incident in Texas occurred in 2007, when 19 migrants died after they were locked inside a truck. Temperatures inside reached up to 38 degrees Celsius and migrants were reported to have “clawed at the insulation and screamed for help.” In May 2022, one migrant was killed and five were injured after a CBP car chase. In 2012, a 16-year-old boy was killed through a border fence on Mexican territory by a Border Patrol Agent, shot ten times in the back in an act that would be ruled unconstitutional. 

Conversely, these incidents allow CBP to justify increases in their budget and rapidly expand their number of personnel. Since 1998, the number of Border Patrol personnel has more than quadrupled from 4,200 to 19,555. CBP and the larger U.S. Homeland Security agency have leveraged the danger that they caused by making the area around the border more dangerous to justify rapidly expanding their resources. 

The Trump campaign made border control a centrepiece of his policy plans. His implementation of a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding illegal border crossings directly led to the separation of almost 4,000 minors from their parents, according to the administration of President Joe Biden. 

Although Trump’s tough-on-immigration policies shined a national spotlight on the issue, human rights violations at the U.S.-Mexico border have existed for a long time. The “prevention through deterrence” policy has been in effect since the Bill Clinton administration. Furthermore, border security tightened significantly after 9/11. These decisions to make the safest border crossing points heavily patrolled, as well as CBP’s decision to push migrants into more dangerous areas of the harsh desert borderlands, are clearly driving factors in the rising numbers of the dead and missing. 

The Biden administration has also increased the CBP budget, although they have reversed some of Trump’s harshest immigration policies and publicly stated that they intend to build a “safe, orderly, and humane immigration system.” However, migrants continue to die in record numbers under Biden’s leadership. Roughly 800 people died during 2022, an increase from 557 people in 2021. Any changes that the Biden administration implemented or proposed are too slow. Every day that the “prevention through deterrence” strategy remains in place, more lives are lost, more families are destroyed, and more people will forever wonder what happened to their loved ones on their journey.

A Two-Headed Snake

Border Patrol would like the public to think of them as not only a security agency, but also as a search and rescue team. CBP has forced migrants into dangerous and deadly situations, including blocking attempts for humanitarian assistance. Officers have been filmed destroying supplies that humanitarian groups left in the desert for migrants. 

In 2018, No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren was arrested by CBP for offering food, shelter, medical attention, and directions toward safety for two migrants. The government considered this to be “felony concealing, harbouring or shielding from detection… in furtherance of illegal presence in the United States.” 

In her closing argument, the prosecutor of this case said that “for four days, those illegal aliens were safe from Border Patrol.” Despite the fact that Border Patrol pushes migrants into dangerous areas and often fails to act as a competent search and rescue team, the people who fill the gaps in providing life-saving services are prosecuted. 

A report led by the humanitarian organization La Coalición de Derechos Humanos found that in “63% of all distress calls that families and advocates referred to Border Patrol, the agency did not conduct any confirmed search or rescue mobilization whatsoever.” The primary mission of CBP has, and continues to be, the prevention of illegal entries into the United States, yet it maintains a monopoly on search and rescue decisions for missing migrants. 

The combination of CBP’s capacity as an immigration enforcement agency and search and rescue team also discourages migrants from seeking help from them, even if they risk death by doing so.

Some migrants also do not know that their 911 calls are passed off to CBP, even when they’re talking to them. 

As long as CBP continues a policy of deterrence, migrants will continue to die. As long as CBP is responsible for rescuing migrants from the danger that they put them in, they will remain lost. These migrants risk everything to reach the United States, and it is the country’s sole responsibility to fix a system which shows zero concern for their survival.


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Boyce, G.A. (2019) “The neoliberal underpinnings of prevention through deterrence and the United States government’s case against geographer Scott Warren,” Journal of Latin American Geography, 18(3), pp. 192–201. Available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/736945

The deaths of 51 people in Texas highlight the perils of migration (2022) The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. Available at: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2022/06/28/the-deaths-of-51-people-in-texas-highlight-the-perils-of-migration (Accessed: October 20, 2022). 

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Newell, B.C., Gomez, R. and Guajardo, V.E. (2016) “Information seeking, technology use, and vulnerability among migrants at the United States–Mexico border,” The Information Society, 32(3), pp. 176–191. Available at: https://pure.uvt.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/17262311/Information_seeking_technology_use_Newell.pdf

Person and Jason Buch, J.-cesar C. (2022) Two Mexicans charged after death of 51 migrants in sweltering Texas truck, Reuters. Thomson Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/death-toll-migrants-found-truck-texas-reaches-50-mexico-says-2022-06-28/ (Accessed: October 20, 2022). 

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Wang, A.B. (2021) Border Patrol agents were filmed dumping water left for migrants. then came a ‘suspicious’ arrest., The Washington Post. WP Company. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/01/23/border-patrol-accused-of-targeting-aid-group-that-filmed-agents-dumping-water-left-for-migrants/ (Accessed: October 20, 2022).

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Tess Herdman

Posted In: Migration | Nationality | Politics | USA

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