Since January 2017, after US President Donald Trump implemented policies designed to discourage migrants from coming to America, US border authorities have claimed early success. The most common metric cited to demonstrate the decline has been US Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants along the 3,000 kilometers of the US-Mexico border. Although apprehensions have indeed fallen under the Trump Administration to early 1970s levels, this continues a descent that began when former President Obama was in office, which in 2016 reached the lowest apprehension levels in almost 50 years.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about migrants who have died or gone missing while transiting the US-Mexico border. As a recent report from the International Organization on Migration (IOM) highlights, 232 migrants have died crossing into the US from Mexico through the end of July 2017—including ten found in a cargo truck in San Antonio, Texas—which reflects an increase from 204 during the same seven months last year. In the early 1970s, when approximately the same number of apprehensions occurred, deaths along the US-Mexico border rarely happened. The Border Patrol and activist groups first started keeping statistics on dead and missing migrants in the mid-1990s, when mass casualties resulting from route shifts away from urban and into rural areas were first reported in the Arizona deserts and in Texas both in and north of the Rio Grande.
The steady decline in Border Patrol apprehensions and sustained tragedies on the US-Mexico border raise two important questions. Why are more migrants dying in attempts to enter the United States while simultaneously fewer people are being arrested? And what can policymakers learn from comparing this era back to the 1970s, when—as American border officials are so keen to remind us—significantly fewer people were apprehended entering the US without documents?