Study Finds Changes in Causes of Border Deaths


At least 1,185 illegal immigrants died while trying to cross the border from 1993 through 1996, with San Diego County the site of the greatest number of fatalities of any county along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican frontier, according to a study released Monday by a university think tank.

The study, called “Death at the Border,” was the first attempt to take a comprehensive look at the deaths of illegal immigrants along the entire border, according to its co-authors at the University of Houston’s Center for Immigration Research.

The nearly 1,200 deaths they documented did not demonstrate an increase in fatalities, but did show a rise in the number of deaths attributed to exposure in the remote areas where immigrants have traveled in an effort to avoid a crackdown on the border, according to Jacqueline Hagan, a sociology professor and co-author of the study.


“We did not find an increased death toll with increased enforcement,” she said. “What we do find is that enforcement influences how the migrants die.”

Overall, the study found, drowning was the most common killer for immigrants along the border, causing 851 deaths. Nearly 800 immigrants drowned in the Rio Grande or adjacent canals alone from 1993 through 1996, the study said.

Being hit by cars was the second major cause of death, responsible for 90 of the fatalities.

San Diego, the major destination for illegal immigrants, had the greatest number of deaths--194--during the four-year period, according to the study.

In 1993, the study could find no deaths from exposure in San Diego, she said. In the 1980s, the most common peril for illegal immigrants in San Diego was being struck by automobiles as they raced across highways, and drowning, Hagan said.

In the wake of the border crackdown known as Operation Gatekeeper, started in October 1994, deaths from exposure have been rising steadily in rural eastern San Diego County, Hagan said.

Today, the ordeal of Guadalupe Romero, 34, is a typical immigrant tragedy. Romero lost the battle with thirst and dehydration Aug. 5 in the sun-scorched badlands of eastern San Diego County.

Romero was the 30th illegal immigrant to die in San Diego County while crossing the border this year, according to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. Last year, 34 died, the consulate said.

Roberto Martinez, the director of the American Friends Service Committee Border Project, said he believes that the death toll in the county this year is closer to 50. But the lack of a central cross-border registry has made it difficult to quantify fatalities and adequately measure the impact of Operation Gatekeeper.

“There’s always going to be an undercount,” Martinez said. “I think everybody will agree that Operation Gatekeeper is pushing people into more dangerous territory.”

Authors of the study agreed that their figures are probably conservative. Many immigrant deaths go unrecorded in counties with few resources, while other immigrants die in counties the study did not examine.

Authors called on policymakers to reconsider all border crackdowns that push immigrants into more risky routes.

“Clearly it’s more dangerous, because you’re channeling migrants to more remote areas where there are fewer highways and they are vulnerable to more hazards,” Hagan said.

U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, President Clinton’s border czar, said: “Any enforcement policy presents risks both to migrants and officers.”

The study urges Latin American governments to play a greater role in warning their citizens of the risks.

But they conceded that many immigrants will probably come anyway.

“The migrants have an economic gun on their backs,” said Nestor Rodriguez, one of the sociology professors who undertook the study. “You can’t blame the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] for following U.S. government policy. We’d like to encourage policymakers to be as considerate as they can be about the human costs of immigration policy.”