Skip to main content

Statement of Human Rights Watch: The Human Cost of Harsh US Immigration Deterrence Policies

Before the US House Homeland Security Committee

Human Rights Watch thanks the House Homeland Security for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record for its hearing “The Real Cost of an Open Border: How Americans are Paying the Price”

Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law by states and non-state armed groups in about 100 countries around the world. Our staff is comprised of approximately 600 people from over 80 countries who are country experts, lawyers, journalists, and others who work to protect those most at risk, including civilians in wartime.

The True Cost of Border Deterrence

Human Rights Watch would like to first express our condolences to the Tambunga family for their loss. The US government should do everything possible to prevent unnecessary and tragic deaths.

In fact, communities at the border and throughout the United States have been witness to an alarming increase in deaths and abuses, and we hope that we can find common ground to prevent them from continuing.

Harsh border deterrence policies – the criminalization of migration, closing off of legal pathways, attacks on the US asylum system, and violent policies and infrastructure – have driven the smuggling market. Over the last thirty years, these deterrence policies have been behind the true cost to both people in the United States and families all over the Americas: thousands of dead and thousands more disappeared, countless injuries, kidnappings, extortion, rape, other violence, and many thousands of families who have been ripped apart forever.

A policy called “Prevention through Deterrence,” officially implemented by the administration of former President Bill Clinton in 1994, explicitly sought to deter irregular border crossing by “disrupt[ing]...traditional entry and smuggling routes” so migrants would be "forced over” more "hostile terrain” far away from populated areas where those at risk of death by exposure to harsh elements might be able to seek help.[1] Immediately, the number of border deaths nearly tripled.  Prevention through Deterrence has contributed to at least 10,000 deaths at the border over the last three decades, a number that is certainly an undercount, since Border Patrol systematically fails to properly count deaths and since human remains in remote areas along the border are rapidly scavenged and scattered by the elements and wildlife.[2]

Since 2010, more than 3,700 people have been reported missing to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights alone.[3] Their families, often US-based, never stop searching for them.

The cost of so many lives lost to US families and communities, as well as to people across this continent and others, is incalculable.

Under the Biden administration, deaths at the border have skyrocketed. More than 850 people died while crossing the border last fiscal year, often while trying to seek safety, reunite with family or return to their home in the US, support family, or improve their quality of life.[4]

People suffer serious injuries climbing over the border wall, including amputated limbs, broken bones, and even death.[5] In 2019, the US began replacing vehicle barriers and 18-foot sections of wall with 30-foot walls, which have been more deadly.[6] In fiscal year 2021, under the administration of President Joe Biden, Border deterrence deaths included at least 17 falls from the border wall, 8 of which occurred near San Diego alone.[7] From 2016-2021, the trauma center at US San Diego “experienced significant increases in the number and severity of patients with border wall fall injuries starting in 2019, as new wall construction concluded,” even when controlling for the uptick in migration.[8] Meanwhile, like other border deterrence policies, the barriers have had no meaningful impact on the number of irregular migrants present in the United States.[9]

Despite knowing that migrants routinely face targeted kidnapping, extortion, rape, and other violence, the US government has implemented policies of return to Mexico of Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike that rely on illegal turnbacks, expulsions, removals, and returns via several anti-asylum policies, including Title 42 summary expulsions, “Remain in Mexico,” rapid asylum processing in abusive border jails, and metering, which is now effectively done electronically via the government application CBP One.[10]

Stranded in Mexico, targeted abuse of migrants is carried out by organized criminal operatives and Mexican state actors based on the knowledge that the vast majority of refugees arriving at the US-Mexico border have family in the United States who can be ransomed for their family members’ life or freedom.[11]

Deterrence policies also carry a cost for Customs and Border Protection officials. The moral injury agents incur as the result of being compelled by both Democrat and Republican administrations to carry out violent and abusive deterrence policies contributes to Border Patrol's high rate of suicide, several agents have told me.

With funding from the US federal government, the state of Texas has doubled down on border deterrence tactics. Under Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s deadly Operation Lone Star, migrants and asylum seekers, including children, have been pushed back by Texas officials, denied water and stranded in sweltering heat, and wounded by razor wire installed by Texas state authorities. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the impact of Operation Lone Star, finding that the program has led to injuries and deaths, increased racial profiling of border residents, consistently violated the rights of migrants and US citizens, and suppressed freedoms of association and expression. Under the program, Texas agencies that receive federal funding have been engaged in violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal funding.[12]  These violations have occurred in the process of arresting and prosecuting migrants and US citizens alike.

Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations have documented how, under Operation Lone Star, Texas troopers have racially profiled and killed dozens of people in deadly high-speed chases that authorities improperly conduct in populated areas, despite the mountain of evidence and awareness by the US government that such pursuits lead to “high risk of loss of life, serious personal injury, and serious property damage.”[13] As of July 2023, a Human Rights Watch review of media reports suggests that at least 61 people have been killed and another 164 injured as the result of dangerous pursuits by Texas troopers since the program started. Some of them, like the Tambunga family, were innocent bystanders.

There is indeed a real cost to people living in the United States at the US southwest border, but it is the result of abusive and deadly deterrence policies by several presidential administrations, and now state governors, accompanied by Congress’ failure to create safe and legal pathways to immigrate or to seek protection or to develop humane border reception policies.

Human Rights Watch respectfully urges Congress to reassess its approach to the border and implement reforms that prioritize all life, human rights, and dignity of border communities and its visitors. 

Human Rights Watch also urges Congress to end its support of Operation Lone Star as the only tangible outcome of this program has been more deaths and injuries of Texans from law enforcement vehicle pursuits and deaths of migrants, including children, who have been pushed back to Mexico with razor wire and buoys.

Finally, we urge Congress to consider investing resources at ports of entry to create rights-respecting reception centers properly staffed by health professionals, trauma specialists, and asylum officers. At a fraction of the billions of taxpayer dollars the US and state governments have spent on militarizing the border, these centers could be established more cost effectively and, ultimately contribute to the preservation of life.


[1] Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond, US Border Patrol, July 1994, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[2] US Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, CBP Should Improve Data Collection, Reporting, and Evaluation for the Missing Migrant Program, April 20, 2022.; Ryan Devereaux, “The Border Patrol is Systematically Failing to Count Migrant Deaths,” The Intercept, May 9, 2022, (accessed July 24, 2023).; Jess Beck, et al., Animal Scavenging and Scattering and the Implications for Documenting the Deaths of Undocumented Border Crossers in the Sonoran Desert, Journal of Forensic Sciences, January 2015, Vol. 60, No. S1,;jsessionid=F6B140323DAA2118103C04B1DEE3CC7B?sequence=1 (accessed July 24, 2023).

[3] Email correspondence with the Colibri Center for Human Rights, June 29, 2023.

[4] Human Rights Watch, US: Biden ‘Asylum Ban’ Endangers Lives at the Border, press release, May 11, 2023,

[5] Amy E. Liepert, et al., “Association of 30-ft US-Mexico Border Wall in San Diego With Increased Migrant Deaths, Trauma Center Admissions, and Injury Severity,” JAMA Surgery, 2022, pp.157(7):633-635, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[6] Tamara Richter, “Report Finds Increase in Deaths, Hospitalizations After 30-Foot Wall Installed at US-Mexico Border,” KCRA4, May 26, 2022, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[7] Office of Professional Responsibility, CBP-Related Deaths: Fiscal Year 2021, February 6, 2023,, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[8] Amy E. Liepert, et al., “Association of 30-ft US-Mexico Border Wall in San Diego With Increased Migrant Deaths, Trauma Center Admissions, and Injury Severity,” JAMA Surgery, 2022, pp.157(7):633-635, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[9] Migration Policy Institute, Profile of the Unauthorized Population: United States,, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[10] Ari Sawyer, Restoring Access to Asylum at the Border, Human Rights Watch, dispatch, March 30, 2022,; Human Rights Watch, ‘Remain in Mexico,’,asylum%20in%20the%20United%20States.;  Michael Garcia Bochenek, “Like I’m Drowning” Children and Families Sent to Harm by the US ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program, Human Rights Watch, report, January 6, 2021,; Human Rights Watch, US: Mexican Asylum Seekers Ordered to Wait, press release, December 23, 2019,; Human Rights Watch, US: Biden ‘Asylum Ban’ Endangers Lives at the Border, press release, May 11, 2023, 

[11] Estados Unidos Mexicanos Secretaría de Gobernación, Instituto Nacional de Migracion, MPP Program–Chihuahua, June 18, 2019, and MPP Program–Tijuana and Mexicali, June 13, 2019, (copies on file with Human Rights Watch).; Maria Verza, “In Nuevo Laredo and elsewhere, many migrants are stuck in Tamaulipas’ lawless limbo,” Associated Press, November 18, 2019, (accessed July 24, 2023).

[12] ACLU of Texas, Texas Civil Rights Project, and Texas Fair Defense Project. “Texas Migrant Arrest Program under ‘Operation Lone Star’—Urgent Need for Investigation into Race and National Origin Discrimination by Texas Agencies.” American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, December 15, 2021. Accessed July 24, 2023.

[13] Operation Lone Star: Racial Profiling in Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Traffic Stops and High Death Toll from DPS Vehicle Pursuits, Title VI complaint, July 28, 2022,

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Most Viewed