THE BLOG
03/19/2013 10:48 am ET | Updated May 19, 2013

Will Immigration Reform Mean More Deaths on the Border?

In May of 2009, Eduardo was on his way to work when he was pulled over by police for failing to come to a complete stop at an intersection. When asked for paperwork proving that he was in the country legally, Eduardo had nothing to show. He was taken into custody, and deported to Mexico shortly after.

With three small children at home in Phoenix, Ariz., Eduardo spent only a week in Mexico before trying to return to them. His wife was being threatened with eviction because she couldn't pay rent without his income. Eduardo found a guide to lead him across the Sonoran desert on foot in early June. He called his wife the day before leaving, promising that he would be back as soon as possible. She never heard his voice again. In July, a decomposed body was found in the desert and later identified as Eduardo. He had lived in the U.S. for 20 years. He left behind a wife and three children, all American citizens.

Stories like Eduardo's are tragic, and all too common for those of us working on the Arizona-Mexico Border. Robin Reineke works at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, helping loved ones identify bodies found in the desert. Hannah Hafter coordinates crisis response work in Nogales, Mexico, with people who have been deported and are often missing family members. We bear witness to the border's human devastation every day -- and we believe that if comprehensive immigration reform is implemented as proposed by the Senate "gang of 8," death and suffering on the border will only increase.

From 1990 to 1999, our medical examiner's office handled an average of 12 bodies of migrants recovered from the desert per year. From 2000 to 2005, that average jumped more than tenfold, to 134, and then from 2006 to 2012, to 188 per year.

What happened was a massive escalation in border enforcement known as the Clinton administration's "prevention through deterrence" strategy. Border Patrol's Tucson sector received a five-fold increase in agents, millions of dollars of surveillance equipment, and a large-scale extension of border walls. With currently more than 21,000 Border Patrol agents nation-wide and an $18 million immigration enforcement budget for 2012, the border has heavier enforcement than ever, pushing migrants into remote and dangerous regions.

Prevention through deterrence continues despite the fact that it isn't working. Those desperate enough to cross the border for work or family do so even when it means risking their lives in the desert. They have done so for more than 10 years. The recent leveling off of migration cannot be claimed as a victory for border enforcement when there is strong evidence that the decrease was linked to the faltering U.S. economy. Yet even as apprehensions go down, the number of bodies found is rising, leading to a death rate per 100,000 apprehensions nearly triple what it was in 2005. An increase in border enforcement has historically preceded increases in death -- first in California in the late 1990s, then in Arizona, and now in Texas, where one county saw the deaths of 127 migrants last year.

People are not only dying while crossing the desert, but are also experiencing violence, kidnapping, and family separation upon deportation. Border Patrol's policy of "lateral deportation" sends deportees hundreds of miles from where they were caught, separates family members (sending them to different cities), and puts women in further danger by deporting them alone.

Approximately one in four deportees are sent to Tamaulipas, where more than 200 bodies of migrants have been found in mass graves since 2011 and entire groups have been kidnapped from the migrant shelter at gunpoint. Many are deported to Coahuila, where federal police were recently exposed for taking bribes to protect the "Zetas" cartel while they kidnapped migrants en masse. Deportations to the area continued. Human Rights Watch estimates that 18,000 migrants are kidnapped yearly. Transporting deportees to these destinations is not only dangerous, but also costs thousands of taxpayer dollars each year.

There is also increasing evidence of excessive use of force by Border Patrol, including the killing of 18 people by agents over the past three years. In October, a Border Patrol agent in Nogales shot through the border fence into Mexico, killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena-Rodriguez, under the pretense that he was throwing rocks, although the boy was more than 50 feet away and below a sharp cliff. The boy's family has not received any information about an investigation or the agent, raising questions of transparency and accountability.

As in Eduardo's case, family separation is painful and damaging. More than 205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported during just 27 months of the Obama administration. A recent No More Deaths study found that 70 percent of deportees who refused to give up trying to cross were doing so to reunite with children. While having a parent taken away traumatizes all of those children, some, like Eduardo's children, lose a parent forever when they die trying to return to them.

Is this the security we want? What is "secure" about a border where people are losing their lives? And what is "comprehensive" about immigration reform that not only fails to address the humanitarian crisis on the border, but also reproduces the same policies that led to it in the first place?

The comprehensive immigration reform proposed by both "the gang of 8" and President Obama offer a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented in exchange for more enforcement, including more Border Patrol agents and drones. The Senate blueprint states that legalization for the undocumented would be "contingent upon securing our borders," meaning that no one would access a green card until all proposed enforcement measures are complete.

The effectiveness of border enforcement is not even questioned, despite the millions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost on U.S. soil. What does it say about us as a nation that we have allowed this to continue? Now that the opportunity has come to address it, will we?

Our border doesn't have to be this way. People don't want to leave home, and they don't want to spend days walking through deserts, evading Border Patrol. They do so because there is no other option. Instead of increasing enforcement, the need to cross the border illegally should be eliminated. There are real steps that can be taken to reduce deaths:

• First of all, the pathway to legalization must include people with previous deportations. Otherwise more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children would be excluded, and most would continue risking their lives to return;

• In addition, more legal and accessible avenues for immigration must be created, prioritizing family unity and dignified work;

• Lateral deportations must end, families must be kept together while being deported, and ports of entry should be regularly assessed for safety of deportees and the most dangerous ones excluded.

• Finally, immigration policies cannot continue to ignore the root causes of migration, namely U.S. free trade policies like NAFTA that destroyed the livelihood of millions of Mexican farmers and caused the loss of nearly 700,000 U.S. jobs.

We plead from the borderlands -- at a time of such opportunity for change, do not turn a blind eye to the death and suffering on the border.

Hannah Hafter is a coordinator with No More Deaths, a non-profit organization with the mission of ending death and suffering in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Robin Reineke works at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, which receives human remains found in the Sonoran desert. Robin features in the new documentary drama by Gael Garcia Bernal and Marc Silver, "Who Is Dayani Cristal."