Illegal Immigration:

Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol's Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated.

GAO-06-770: Published: Aug 15, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2006.

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Reports in recent years have indicated that increasing numbers of migrants attempting to enter the United States illegally die while crossing the southwest border. The Border Patrol implemented the Border Safety Initiative (BSI) in 1998 with the intention of reducing injuries and preventing deaths among migrants that attempt to cross the border illegally. GAO assessed: (1) Trends in the numbers, locations, causes, and characteristics of border-crossing deaths. (2) Differences among the Border Patrol sectors in implementing the BSI methodology. (3) The extent to which existing data allow for an evaluation of the effectiveness of the BSI and other efforts to prevent border-crossing deaths.

GAO's analysis of data from the BSI, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and studies of state vital registries shows consistent trends in the numbers, locations, causes, and characteristics of migrant border-crossing deaths that occurred along the southwest border between 1985 and 2005. Since 1995, the number of border-crossing deaths increased and by 2005 had more than doubled. This increase in deaths occurred despite the fact that, according to published estimates, there was not a corresponding increase in the number of illegal entries. Further, GAO's analysis also shows that more than three-fourths of the doubling in deaths along the southwest border since 1995 can be attributed to increases in deaths occurring in the Arizona desert. Differences among the BSI sector coordinators in collecting and recording data on border-crossing deaths may have resulted in the BSI data understating the number of deaths in some regions. Despite these differences, our analysis of the BSI data shows trends that are consistent with trends identified in the NCHS and state vital registry data. However, the Border Patrol needs to continue to improve its methods for collecting data in order to accurately record deaths as changes occur in the locations where migrants attempt to cross the border--and consequently where migrants die. Improved data collection would allow the Border Patrol to continue to use the data for making accurate planning and resource allocation decisions. Comprehensive evaluations of the BSI and other efforts by the Border Patrol to prevent border-crossing deaths are challenged by data and measurement limitations. However, the Border Patrol has not addressed these limitations to sufficiently support its assertions about the effectiveness of some of its efforts to reduce border-crossing deaths. For instance, it has not used multivariate statistical methods to control for the influences of measurable variables that could affect deaths, such as changes in the number of migrants attempting to cross the border.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2006, we reported on trends in deaths among migrants that attempt to cross the border illegally and the extent to which existing data allow for an evaluation of Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) efforts to prevent border-crossing deaths through its Border Safety Initiative (BSI) (GAO-06 770). In the report, we noted that not all BSI sector coordinators consistently implemented the established guidelines for collecting and recording data on migrant deaths and that these differences can contribute to incomplete counts of deaths. As a result, we recommended that CBP ensure that BSI sector coordinators follow consistent protocols for collecting migrant death data from local authorities. CBP agreed with this recommendation and in October 2007, CBP officials reported that they established a working group that reviewed the BSI protocol for collecting, recording, and reporting border-crossing deaths. According to written documents provided by CBP, officials also revised the BSI Methodology to prevent inconsistencies in the data collection process and to outline roles and responsibilities across organizational lines. Specifically, the BSI Methodology now requires the BSI sector coordinator to establish liaison with local officials to obtain information on those undocumented migrant deaths in which the Border Patrol was not involved. The Methodology further states that each BSI sector coordinator must document their contact with state, local, and tribal officials to ensure that the reporting and documentation of all BSI related deaths in their sector are accurately recorded. The revised protocol is consistent with our recommendation and should help CBP to improve its methods for collecting data in order to more accurately record deaths as changes occur in the locations where migrants attempt to cross the border and consequently where migrants die. As a result of this improved data collection, CBP will be able to better make accurate planning and resource allocation decisions relative to the Border Safety Initiative and their ongoing search and rescue efforts.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the consistency across Border Patrol sectors in the implementation of the BSI methodology and the completeness of data on deaths in any given year, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should take steps to ensure that BSI sector coordinators follow a consistent protocol for collecting and recording information about border-crossing deaths and that all coordinators follow established procedures for maintaining and documenting regular contacts with local authorities to obtain timely information about all bordercrossing deaths within the BSI target zone.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contacted GAO regarding the status of the recommendation and stated that it is unclear how a "multivariate statistical approach" could in any way assist the Border Patrol in reducing overall border deaths. CBP further stated that: "We continue to believe that, while our humanitarian efforts do make a difference in rescuing or saving even one life, acquiring the expertise of an outside statistical consultant, during a time when our budget has been severely limited for non-programmatic operations, would detour the very funds needed to save lives vis-a-vis the BSI [Border Safety Initiative] program to evaluating the BSI program. Employing a multivariate statistical approach will be very costly, time consuming, and in our opinion, is not likely to yield anything of value to further the safety of the illegal aliens". As a result of CBP's concerns regarding their ability to implement the recommendation, GAO agreed to close the recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to better demonstrate the effectiveness of the Border Patrol's efforts to reduce migrant deaths, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should assess the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of using multivariate statistical approaches to enhance estimates of impacts of the initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

 

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