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Photographs of people who disappeared while attempting to migrate to the United States are laid out across the street from the US Capitol in Washington, DC, October 19, 2021. © 2021 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(Mexico City) – Border deterrence policies are driving increased deaths and disappearances of people migrating to the United States, said Human Rights Watch and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in a web feature published today. The web feature, “‘Nothing but Bones:’ 30 Years of Deadly Deterrence at the US-Mexico Border,” features the stories of nine people who died or disappeared while trying to cross the southern US border and of their surviving family members. 

US Border Patrol has reported about 10,000 deaths since 1994, when Prevention Through Deterrence was first implemented, but local rights groups at the border believe the number could be up to 80,000, with thousands more disappeared. Most of those dead are Indigenous, Brown, and Black people.

“The number of deaths is shocking, but each death represents a human being, a family, a community,” said Ari Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US government should end deadly border deterrence policies and enact policies that protect human life.” 

Prevention Through Deterrence and its progeny are a set of policies explicitly aimed at forcing irregular migrants onto “hostile terrain” and making crossing the US southern border so dangerous that people are discouraged from even trying. The policies have intentionally funneled migrants into crossing points where there are life-threatening conditions. Deterrence policies include punitive immigration policies and dangerous infrastructure, such as border walls, razor wire, armed soldierssurveillance technology, and, in Texas, river buoys equipped with saw blades and other infrastructure.

Pushed back to Mexico, criminal groups and corrupt state officials systematically target migrants for kidnapping and violence, while missing person reports are rarely resolved and the human remains of migrants—in known mass graves—remain unidentified. 

Former Border Patrol officials who witnessed the initial rollout of Prevention Through Deterrence told Human Rights Watch that the number of people they found dead immediately spiked when the US government began funneling migrants into more dangerous crossings. Predictably, continued border deterrence has driven the death toll higher in the US-Mexico borderlands. 

Over the past three decades, Prevention Through Deterrence and its progeny have proven ineffective at reducing migration and are harmful to both migrants and Border Patrol agents. Agents have said that being required to enforce deterrence policies inconsistent with their values has contributed to the Border Patrol’s record-high rates of suicide.

Former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden have used deterrence to target asylum seekers. The Biden administration, in close collaboration with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has blocked asylum at ports of entry and removed many non-Mexican migrants to Mexico. Documented deaths and disappearances have hit record highs during Biden’s term.

The accounts in the web feature reflect the different experiences of a range of individuals, and they show the deeply personal and damaging impacts deterrence policies have on families.  Some of the narratives illustrate how families suffer from the unending grief of not knowing what happened to their loved one.

In one case, a 19-year-old woman died crossing the US-Mexico border in the hopes of joining her aunts and making money to send home to her parents, who are both chronically ill. While her aunts are both legal permanent residents in the Unites States, that status did not allow them to sponsor their niece, with whom they were very close.

“How is it possible that I have come to see her for the last time, and she is nothing but bones, when I have waited for her with so much love?” her aunt said when the body of her niece was finally found. 

The US government has a responsibility to safeguard the right to life when it makes border and immigration policy decisions. The US should end deadly border deterrence policies, expand safe and legal pathways to migrate, and support Colibrí’s efforts to collect DNA and identify human remains. 

“No one should lose their life to reunite with family, get a better job, or flee persecution,” Sawyer said. “The Biden administration should reverse course and create a rights-respecting and humane border.” 

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