More than 50 people died of heat exhaustion in the back of an abandoned truck in south Texas while migrating to the United States, a horrific tragedy that should serve as a wakeup call to lawmakers. While US authorities were quick to blame smugglers, they avoided naming the underlying co-culprit: the US government and its abusive border policies.
For three decades now, the United States has carried out a set of policies called “prevention through deterrence,” designed to make irregular migration so punitive and dangerous people will stop attempting it. At the same time, it has shut down legal pathways to migrate, while also cutting off access to asylum under the “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 expulsion policies.
President Joe Biden has continued to implement these racist and inhumane policies.
Deterrence does not stop migration. Human rights violations in countries of origin, violence or conflict, environmental harms and disasters, and economic inequality will continue to fuel the number of people seeking safety in the US.
Instead, bolstering deterrence has steadily increased deaths of migrants in places like the US-Mexico border, where thousands have died since “prevention through deterrence” was first implemented under the Clinton administration. Rising extreme heat in the deserts that people are compelled to migrate through is making border crossing more dangerous. The true number dead is not known because Border Patrol undercounts immigrant deaths. A recent government report found that about twice as many immigrants died crossing the border as Border Patrol reported to Congress.
As the United States has expanded deterrence in recent years, strong-arming other countries into blocking migration with visa regimes or by deploying security forces, many people are dying before ever even reaching the US border. The International Organization for Migration recorded that since 2014 at least 159 people have died trying to sail in rickety boats across the Caribbean Sea while another 171 died in the Darien Gap, a week-long crossing through dense jungle frequented by drug runners. The true death toll is certainly much higher.
US lawmakers should immediately restore access to asylum at the border and create more safe, legal, and dignified pathways to migrate. The Biden administration should cease pressuring neighboring countries to stop migrants on their journeys to safety. The Department of Homeland Security should plan now for continued extreme heat events by ending failed deterrence policies and transforming border operations to prioritize lifesaving humanitarian actions.