Two Decades of Death and Disappearance along the U.S.-Mexico Border

From the Series: The Damage Wrought: Immigration Before, Under, and After Trump

A map of dangers as resources made by a young Mexican border crosser.

As the forensic anthropologist used a scalpel to remove decayed cartilage from the pubic symphysis of an unidentified woman, she spoke gently to the bones:

“Ok, girl. I know, I know. Here we go.”

She worked over the sink, tap running, water rinsing away blood, bits of cartilage, and maggot pupae. The deceased woman was young. The epiphyses had not fused, so there were tiny bone fragments embedded in the cartilage. The anthropologist struggled to get them out, expressing disgust and care at the same time:

“Ugh. This is gross. Gonna have to sit down! [laughs] Ok. Just don’t think about it.”

“I’m sorry, lovey.”1

Although she has become accustomed to examining the decomposed remains of those who have died while crossing the border, this anthropologist has not normalized the experience. She maintains an approach grounded in care, both for the deceased and for herself. One of three forensic anthropologists at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, Arizona, she is part of a team that has examined an average of 154 cases per year of undocumented border crossers since the year 2000 (Martinez et al. 2021).

Border deaths on this scale have become normal in Arizona (De Leon 2015; Jusionyte 2018). The policies that have led migrants to their deaths in the desert are neither new nor partisan. The consensus in Washington to accept hundreds of border deaths each year was reached in the late 1990s. In 1994, Clinton’s head of Immigration and Naturalization signed a strategic plan that detailed a new enforcement strategy based on prevention through deterrence. The strategy relied on the deadly potential of U.S. southwestern deserts, which were employed to inflict harm on those who would cross outside of a checkpoint. The authors of the plan, including planning experts from the Department of Defense Center for Low Intensity Conflict, described the “searing heat” of southern deserts in tactical terms: “illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger” (Immigration and Naturalization Service 1994, 2). These “uninhabited expanses” (in fact, home to thousands of border residents including large Native American populations) were then used as a “natural barrier,” while more populated portions of the border experienced an influx of Border Patrol presence. This segmented enforcement was first implemented in California in 1994. Deaths increased in that state immediately and severely, with a 509 percent increase between 1994 and 2000 (Cornelius 2001). Despite this early evidence that the strategy was deadly, Border Patrol went ahead with implementation in Arizona in 1999. Like California, migrant deaths in Arizona increased swiftly, as can be observed in the chart below.

Data from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Figure used with permission from the authors of a 2021 report by the Binational Migration Institute (Martinez et al. 2021).

While the annual rate of recoveries has remained relatively steady through four U.S. presidential administrations, the spike in 2020 has been concerning, and could be explained by several Trump administration policies. One is “metering,” whereby Customs and Border Protection limited the number of people who could ask for asylum at legal ports of entry. Another is the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border towns indefinitely before they could attend immigration court hearings in the United States. A final factor could have been the Trump administration’s pandemic-related Title 42 (continued by the Biden administration), allowing Border Patrol agents to quickly expel hundreds of thousands of migrants to Mexico. Each of these policies has led to desperation among those waiting in northern Mexico, with some likely choosing to cross through the desert, and some number of them dying in the process.

While Trump administration immigration policies were particularly cruel and were promoted with overtly racist language, the original sin that led to massive loss of life in the borderlands was the normalization of such deaths beginning in the 1990s. This normalization has been bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans have consistently refused to address the loss of life in the borderlands, instead promoting legislation that further militarizes the border and contributes to death. Along with accepting thousands of deaths in the desert each year, lawmakers have also accepted, well before Trump, thousands of disappearances, the razing of sacred Indigenous sites, the destruction of habitat for protected species, the flooding of local homes, and the waiver of hundreds of local, state, and national laws.

During this time, the idea that the border should be a wall had become sacrosanct and fused with nationalism (Besteman 2019). For many, it goes without question that more border security is needed and that the Border Patrol needs more funding. The United States now spends over $25 billion on border and immigration control, compared with only $1.5 billion in 1994 (Miller 2021). The U.S. economy’s dependence on labor from Latin America remains unaddressed, as does the long-term impact of U.S. foreign policy in the region (Green 2011). As a result, migrants continue to come north, and continue to die en route in Mexico and in the deserts of the U.S. borderlands. Without comprehensive immigration reform including increased quotas for immigrant workers from Latin America (Ngai 2018) and dramatically de-escalated border militarization, a return to the pre-Trump “normal” will only be a continuation of deadly racialized state violence in the borderlands.

In the meantime, families will continue to search for the missing, volunteers will continue to find the bones of the dead and put out water for the living, and forensic experts will continue to be “janitors for the U.S. government.”2

Despite the fact that these deaths have become regular, their death certificates remind us that they are “unnatural deaths,” and the words and actions of those caring for the dead remind us that this is not normal.


1. Reineke fieldnotes, Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, August 13, 2021.

2. Reineke fieldnotes, Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, September 2012.


Besteman, Catherine. 2019. “Militarized Global Apartheid.” Current Anthropology 60, no. S19: S26–38.

Cornelius, Wayne A. 2001. “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Control Policy.” Population and Development Review 27, no. 4: 661–85.

De Leon, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.

Green, Linda. 2011. “The Nobodies: Neoliberalism, Violence, and Migration.” Medical Anthropology 30, no. 4: 366–85.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). 1994. “Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond: National Strategy.” U.S. Border Patrol.

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2018. Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border. Oakland: University of California Press.

Martinez, Daniel E., Robin C. Reineke, Geoffrey A. Boyce, Samuel N. Chambers, Sarah Launius, Bruce E. Anderson, Gregory L. Hess, et al. 2021. “Migrant Deaths in Southern Arizona: Recovered Undocumented Border Crosser Remains Investigated by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990–2020.” Tucson: Binational Migration Institute, University of Arizona.

Miller, Todd. 2021. “A Lucrative Border-Industrial Complex Keeps the US Border in Constant ‘Crisis.’Guardian (UK), April 19.

Ngai, Mae. 2018. “Immigration’s Border-Enforcement Myth.” New York Times, January 28.