The Border Patrol has been undercounting migrant deaths along the US-Mexico border for years, according to a new report from the main congressional watchdog agency.
The revelation is something immigrant rights activists have long claimed, and the Government Accountability Office confirmed it, finding that in eastern Arizona, a particularly dangerous part of the border, the government count was in error by more than 50% compared to independent counts.
Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, keeps track of migrants found by its staff, but struggles to account for cases where remains are found by someone else, the researchers said.
That means the government may not have a full picture of the growing chaos at the border, where deaths appear to be on the rise.
“CBP has neither collected nor recorded, nor reported to Congress, comprehensive data on migrant deaths nor has it disclosed limitations with the data it has reported,” the GAO said.
Homeland Security officials said they are trying to make improvements, but activists on the ground say they’ll believe it when they see it.
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“I applaud their efforts, at least in terms of rhetoric, but it remains to be seen if they will actually go through with this,” said Brad Jones, a Humane Borders volunteer. “In previous years, they have been forced to underestimate migrant deaths and indicated they would do something about it, but they never seem to act on it.”
He called the GAO report “a pretty serious rebuke” to the Border Patrol.
CBP has declined to release its current death count for 2022, but it ended 2021 with 557 recorded deaths along the southern border, breaking its previous record of 293 deaths set in 2005.
But those numbers underestimate the true extent of the death, the GAO found.
In one region of eastern Arizona between 2015 and 2019, CBP counted 339 deaths. But Humane Borders, which works with the medical examiner in Pima County, which ends up with custody of many of the bodies, counts 699 deaths in the same period.
Mr. Jones, who is also a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, said that even the count remains insufficient.
“We know that 4,000 remains have been recovered on the US-Mexico border in the last 20 years. What we don’t know, and what is hard to know, is what the actual real number is. I have seen estimates of three to eight times that number,” he said.
Jim H. Crumpacker, the Department of Homeland Security’s liaison with the GAO, said CBP has made progress in trying to improve both data collection and the deployment of methods to save migrants.
He also promised that the next report to Congress on missing migrants will shed light on trends in migrant rescues and deaths.
He agreed with all three GAO recommendations, including one to make better use of external data, such as death reports tallied by local medical examiners.
CBP officials told GAO investigators that they know of higher counts from other sources and use them for “situational awareness,” even if they are not part of the agency’s official count.
The problem, the GAO said, is that Congress has instructed CBP to use all the numbers at its disposal. The agency not only doesn’t do that, but it also hasn’t told Congress the limitations of its own data, the GAO said.
Amid the border chaos, the rising number of immigrant deaths has not received much attention.
But both sides of the immigration debate say it’s an eye-opening detail that speaks volumes about the current surge.
Border Patrol agents say the deaths are the obvious result of the general flow of people. More coming means more dying.
Meanwhile, immigrant rights activists argue that the government’s own immigration policies are to blame. They say the tightening of borders in recent decades has pushed migrants to more remote and rugged regions in search of viable crossings and dying trying.
In an attempt to save lives, CBP has placed 165 rescue beacons in heavily traveled corridors along the southern border. Migrants who reach one can activate it and call for help.
And more than 2,500 signs have been posted with instructions on how to get help by calling 9-1-1.
That may help with deaths from exhaustion and exposure, but it does little to solve the rising number of drownings.
Nor can it help with the growing number of migrant deaths in vehicle collisions, caused by smuggling drivers who are increasingly at risk, or the growing number of migrants who die after falling off the border wall.
It is not just immigrants who are paying a price.
On Friday, a member of the Texas National Guard went missing in the Rio Grande after helping rescue two migrants who appeared to be drowning. The soldier was sent to the border as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempt to patch gaps in border security from the Biden administration.
As of Sunday, the search continued.