Home > Recent Post > The Danger of U.S. Border Patrol Policy – Seth M. Holmes

The Danger of U.S. Border Patrol Policy – Seth M. Holmes

Seth M. Holmes
University of California, Berkeley

The U.S. Senate’s recent agreement – to increase the size of the Border Patrol by 20,000 agents, add 700 miles of fence, and deploy $3.2 billion in military equipment – may lead to an increase in deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands if current policies continue. Most media coverage, however, has failed to mention that Border Patrol policies and actions directly contribute to these fatalities.


One recent example is an article titled, “In 30 days, Border Patrol rescues 177 people from Arizona desert,” published last month in the Los Angeles Times. The article noted that although fewer people are crossing the border overall, death rates are at an all-time high in the southern Arizona desert. It blamed the spike in fatalities on the fact that migrants are increasingly crossing the border at its most treacherous and remote points. Yet the article failed to point out that Border Patrol policies have contributed to these deaths by deliberately re-routing migrants to cross in regions so perilous that Border Patrol officials themselves have referred to them as “the corridor of death” (Doty 2011).

Between 2003 and 2005, I spent 18 months migrating with undocumented Mexican farm workers in the United States and Mexico (Holmes 2013). As part of this fieldwork, I took part in a border crossing that began in southern Mexico and ended in a U.S. border patrol jail after we were apprehended in rural Arizona. Echoing Stonecipher’s recent post here at AccessDenied, I experienced the limits of intersubjectivity and the ways in which difference is enforced during this trek and apprehension.

Even while I trekked across the desert and was apprehended by Border Patrol alongside my Mexican companions, I was continuously confronted by the differences in our experiences, as nationality and ethnicity powerfully shape risk and vulnerability in the border region. My Mexican companions were deported back to Mexico and, as a U.S. citizen, I was released with a citation for crossing the border without going through customs. During this fieldwork, I also recorded interviews and conversations with undocumented immigrants crossing the border, border patrol agents, border activists, borderland residents, and armed civilian vigilantes.

During our journey, our group experienced many of the harsh conditions that have contributed to the increase in border crossing deaths over the last two decades. I traveled with nine healthy young men who were returning to the U.S. to be with their families and work in order to send money back to Mexico to help their extended families there survive. We trekked for close to 24 hours through the desert from northern Mexico into southern Arizona through sand, cacti, and dried creek beds. Many groups of migrants, such as those including older people and small children, take three to five days to cross through longer stretches of the border to decrease the likelihood of apprehension by the Border Patrol.

Our group encountered extreme heat and met spiny cacti, rattlesnakes, and scorpions in the dark night. I drank through a gallon of water every few hours as we hiked faster than I have ever moved for an extended period of time. I carried five gallons of water and several bottles of Gatorade and Pedialyte. We wondered if the other people we came across wearing dark-colored clothing were assailants after our money or other people trying to cross the border. While I knew the border crossing would be dangerous, I was repeatedly surprised by this experience of danger and risk in the borderlands.

Every year, hundreds of people die in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Most deaths are due to dehydration and heat stroke (as AccessDenied contributors Stonecipher and Willen have written) although snakebites, automobile accidents, and violent assaults also happen regularly. According to the new study released in June by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute (“A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border”), border deaths have been on the rise in recent years, an increase that has also been noted by other scholars and independent humanitarian organizations (Cornelius 2001, Doty 2011, Eschback et al 1998, GAO 2006, Humane Borders 2012, Massey 2012).

The period of increasing deaths relates to the Border Patrol’s enactment of several individual projects under a policy known as “prevention through deterrence.” This policy concentrates Border Patrol activity in the safer areas of the border—where the terrain is less hostile and migrants are less likely to die from heat exposure or dehydration— in order to direct migrants to more dangerous areas in the hope that fewer people will cross. Unfortunately, this policy has contributed directly to the increase in deaths on the border as several researchers, including the authors of the new Binational Migration Institute report, have demonstrated. On some level, it makes sense that directing human beings to increasingly dangerous areas will lead to more deaths.

Importantly, statements by Border Patrol and other government officials have demonstrated their awareness that “prevention through deterrence” would lead to increased suffering and death on the border (Cornelius 2001, Doty 2011). In this way, the Border Patrol has knowingly contributed to death in the desert. In other words, the dangerous conditions my companions and I experienced in the borderlands were at least partially the result of Border Patrol policy that encourages people to cross in some places and discourages them from crossing in others.

The American public, including readers of the Los Angeles Times and other media, need to see and understand both aspects of the relationship between Border Patrol activities and the increasing deaths on the border. Not only does the Border Patrol rescue people at risk in the desert, as the LA Times reported, but its policies also increase those individuals’ risk of death in the first place.

At this historic moment of immigration reform, it is critical for the Border Patrol to re-consider its policies, including “prevention through deterrence” and the increasing militarization of the border that directs people into more and more deadly areas. The details of where and how additional agents and military technology will be deployed by the Border Patrol have yet to be worked out. If the “prevention through deterrence” policy of deliberately putting migrants in harm’s way remains in place, the Senate agreement to increase the human and technological force of the Border Patrol will likely perpetuate this high level of death in the borderlands.

Rather than allowing this to happen, we must instead reconsider what “border security” means, for whom the border is made more secure and for whom it is made more deadly, and how we might work toward more humane policies. Finally, keeping in mind the structural production of migration in the first place, it is important for the U.S. government to work toward equal global development such that undocumented immigration is not experienced, as described by Macario, one of my companions during our trek through the border desert, as “the only option left.”


Cornelius W.A., Death at the border: efficacy and unintended consequences of US immigration control policy, Population and Development Review 27 (4), 2001, 661–685.

Doty R.L., Bare life: border-crossing deaths and spaces of moral alibi, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 (4), 2011, 599–612.

Eschbach K., Hagan J., Rodriguez N., Hernandez R. and Bailey S., Death at the border, International Migration Review 33, 1998, 430–454.

GAO, United States Government Accountablity Office, Illegal immigration: Border-crossing deaths have doubled since 1995; border Patrol’s efforts to prevent deaths have not been fully evaluated, 2006, United States Government Accountability Office; Washington, DC.

Holmes, S.M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Humane Borders, Migrant deaths, rescue beacons, water stations 2000–2012, 2012

Massey D.S. and Pren K.A., Unintended consequences of US immigration policy: explaining the Post-1965 surge from Latin America, Population and Development Review 38 (1), 2012, 1–29.

Seth M. Holmes, PhD, MD is Martin Sisters Endowed Chair Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health and the Graduate Program in Medical Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley. His work as a cultural and medical anthropologist and physician focuses broadly on social hierarchies, health disparities, and the ways in which perceptions of social difference naturalize and normalize these inequalities. He is author of the new book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (University of California, 2013) which examines the experiences of migrant farmworkers and the conditions that undermine migrant health and healthcare.

Cite this:

Holmes, Seth M. 2013. “The Danger of U.S. Border Patrol Policy.” Accessed [date] at http://wp.me/pIK8x-Bd.

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