Border walls overlook the realities of migrant deaths, shifting demographics, and humanitarian crises

By Sara Staedicke

President Trump’s Executive Order promising to build a “great, great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border was intended to portray the President as a man of action following through on his campaign promises. But how effective would a southern border wall be in practice? Experience tells us that walls fail to prevent migration because they do not address the structural push and pull factors that motivate migration. President Trump’s plan to secure the border does not appear to consider the grave loss of human life border walls produce, the shifting demographic realities of U.S.-Mexico border crossings, and humanitarian crises propelling migrants to flee their homes no matter the dangers of migration.

Could securing the remaining 1,300 miles of unfenced U.S.-Mexico border curb migration? It simply is not that easy. Many areas of the border pose physical challenges as it runs along steep terrain, private land, the Tohono O’odham Reservation, and the Rio Grande River. In addition to the physical challenges and the exorbitant cost of building a wall, a wall would also be ineffective because significant proportions of the unauthorized population in the U.S. did not cross the border without authorization, but rather overstayed valid visas. A recent study from the Center for Migration Studies of New York reported that two thirds of unauthorized immigrants who arrived in 2014 were visa-overstays rather than border-crossers. Furthermore, given the extensive existing border security infrastructure along the southern border—which includes 650 miles of fencing, advanced surveillance, drones, and more—Department of Homeland Security (DHS) experts have stated that constructing a wall along all 2,000 miles of the border is unnecessary.

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Border wall, Mexico, 2014. BBC World Service under Creative Commons license.

Even so, while border walls and security forces can reduce movement to an extent, particularly over short stretches, they fail to stop migration altogether. For instance, when the U.S. government installed fencing near the San Diego and El Paso portions of the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1990s, this brought border crossings to a halt in those areas, yet migrant flows quickly shifted to the harsh, unsecured desert in Arizona. As migrants resorted to more dangerous paths, deaths increased drastically. Statistics on the exact number of migrant deaths vary, but U.S. Border Patrol reports recovering more than 6,000 deceased migrants on the U.S. side of the border since 1998, with the highest concentration in the Tucson sector. These Border Patrol death statistics do not even account for cases in which local authorities or humanitarian groups were the first responders. The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has reported significantly more migrant deaths than Border Patrol in the past few years.

Image 2 migrant deaths humane borders

A constantly updated and searchable map of migrant deaths is available through the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.

The same trends hold true elsewhere in the world. In 2015 and 2016 many countries in Europe began building or planning to build walls. In particular, many states along the Balkan route (such as Hungary) fortified their borders, bringing the Balkan route to a supposed close in March 2016. However, this splintered migrant flows from one main corridor to many, rather than completely stopping migrant flows. For instance, as Hungary fortified its border with Serbia, routes shifted towards Croatia and Slovenia. The journey also became more difficult, dangerous, and expensive with cases of violence and human trafficking amplified. Around the world, there is a global trend that border walls don’t stop, but divert migrants to more dangerous routes. The Migration Policy Institute referred to the persistence of migrants in face of border enforcement an “ever-evolving cycle of adaptation” to circumvent enforcement and reported this as one of the top 10 migration issues of 2016.  For their limited impact, border walls are costly both in terms of financial capital and human life.

The construction of a border wall along the U.S.’s southwest border also does not address the significant demographic shifts and diversification of migrant flows in recent years. While some politicians may want to fan the flames of public fear with accusations that the border is out of control, total apprehensions at the southwestern border have decreased from over 1.6 million in fiscal year (FY) 2000 to just over 400,000 in FY 2016. Furthermore, the demographic composition of apprehensions has shifted significantly. While Mexicans made up nearly all apprehensions in FY 2000, the number of Mexicans has declined until reaching a historic low in 2016. Likewise, apprehensions of non-Mexicans, namely Central Americans from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have increased and surpassed the number of Mexicans for the first time in 2014.

In addition to demographic changes in nationality, the proportion of families and unaccompanied children apprehended has also shifted dramatically in recent years. Between 2013 and 2014, apprehensions of family units increased by 361 percent and apprehensions of unaccompanied children increased by 77 percent. This reflects humanitarian push factors such as violence, gangs, and extreme poverty rampant in the Northern Triangle. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2014 data, Honduras and El Salvador have the two highest homicide rates worldwide. Staggering numbers of Central Americans, including families and unaccompanied children, are arriving at the southwestern border to seek asylum in the U.S. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans requesting asylum in the U.S. increased by 370 percent. Within the same time period, applications to Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama also increased by an astounding 1,179 percent. As such, rather than attempting to evade detection at the border, Central American arrivals present themselves to authorities to file for asylum. Thus, rather than being an issue of border security, this is an issue of humanitarian crisis and the incapacity of the backlogged U.S. immigration court system to handle the surge in asylum seekers. An expensive border wall would have little impact because the U.S. is legally required to process asylum claims.

Overall, the implementation of a border wall along the entire southwest border of the United States does not consider the practicality, cost, or effectiveness of such a policy. The wall does not address the deaths associated with border walls, the changing demographics of border-crossers, and the humanitarian factors propelling Central American migrants. Deterrence policies such as a “beautiful wall” do little to deter those desperate to flee humanitarian crisis or to reunite with their families. Instead of providing an effective solution to reduce migration, the wall only serves as a hollow promise that President Trump is taking action to “fix the border.”

Sara Staedicke is a communications professional working to make research and data on migration accessible to the public. Her migration interests include borders, integration, transnationalism, gender, and demography. She is a native Tucsonan and holds a B.A. in Geography from Mount Holyoke College.

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