US Politics

Will Trump’s border wall save or endanger lives?


51 people have died while crossing the US-Mexico border so far this year. SBS News looks at the ramifications of President Donald Trump's planned border wall for the thousands of migrants who make the perilous crossing each year.

Every year hundreds of people die while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. Despite President Donald Trump's tough stance on illegal immigration, people continue to risk their lives on a daily basis. 51 deaths have been reported so far this year. The Missing Migrants Project tracks incidents involving migrants and has recorded more than 15,000 deaths over the past four years alone.

The border between Mexico and the United States is the busiest land border in the world and one of the longest, covering approximately 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometres) from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The boundary line cuts through desert and mountains.

Trump's border strategy

President Donald Trump's highly publicised strategy to stop the flow is the construction of a 30-foot high border wall. But US-Mexico border affairs analyst Christopher Wilson told SBS News history shows his strategy could increase the death toll.

“When walls were built and more border patrol agents put in place in urban areas in San Diego, in El Paso, we saw a change in migrant flows.”

“They went further and further out into the desert to make their crossing. As a result in that case it became more dangerous for them to cross the border,” he said.

President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he gets a briefing on border wall prototypes.
President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he gets a briefing on border wall prototypes.

Christopher Wilson is deputy director of the Wilson Centre's Mexico Institute and has closely studied the myriad of routes people take to make it onto US territory.

“A wall is not a silver bullet solution. All a wall does is slow someone down, they can find ways to cross it, they can dig under, climb over, cut holes in it.”

“It is less likely to become less dangerous because in general the progression is towards more and more remote areas,” he said.

Finding a way around the wall

About one-third of the US-Mexico border is already blockaded with fencing or walls, yet every year US Border Patrol agents arrest hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr Wilson said President Trump’s plans to turn the wall into an "impenetrable fortress" would have a short-term ‘shock value' but would not reduce numbers in the long-term.

“As more migrants test a route. Test new ways of crossing the border. They find the way to be successful in finishing their journey.”

He said previous efforts to strengthen physical infrastructure along the border had failed to stem the flow.

“They stopped crossing in those areas. But they didn’t just stay at home. Instead, they decided to cross in areas where there wasn’t that type of presence.”

Migrants set out to cross the US-Mexico border.
Migrants set out to cross the US-Mexico border.
SBS Dateline

Death Valley

Mostly men die on the US-Mexico border. Last year the Missing Migrants Project recorded 270 male, 22 female and five child deaths. They also counted 118 unidentifiable human remains.

United States Studies Centre analyst Dr Thomas Adams compared the southern border crossing to spending five or six days trekking around Alice Springs, Australia’s central desert region. He found many similarities.

“There is no water. Summertime temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius. There’s no shade. In the winter time, you can get down to negative 10 degrees Celsius,” he told SBS News.

People who cross the US-Mexico border commonly die from heat exposure and dehydration but also drownings and hyperthermia.

The Missing Migrants Project, which describes its data as "minimum estimates," recorded 415 migrant deaths last year including:

  • 91 drownings
  • 46 deaths from heat exposure and dehydration
  • 18 deaths from hyperthermia
  • 132 skeletal remains where cause of death was unknown
    Families unite at the US-Mexico border.
    Families unite at the US-Mexico border.

Desperation outweighs the risk

Dr Adams told SBS News that people are mostly fleeing crime, violence and government corruption in their Latin American countries.

“People willing to walk through a desert of 40-45 degrees Celsius in the hot summer’s sun tend to be a pretty desperate group of people.”

“Those who study and document immigration say that American level policy is usually a drop in the bucket compared to the push factors that are forcing people away.”

The Wilson Centre’s Christopher Wilson pointed out that people who are willing to risk their lives in the desert have compelling reasons.

“The pull factors can be strong in terms of family reunification and better economic opportunities. Border enforcement is generally not as strong as those factors.”

The U.S. Mexico border fence as it cuts through the two downtowns of Nogales, Arizona.
The U.S. Mexico border fence as it cuts through the two downtowns of Nogales, Arizona.

Trump strengthens US border patrols

President Trump signed executive orders on January 25 calling for increased border patrols and the construction of his border wall. Last week he viewed eight border wall prototypes in San Diego.

A sudden decline in arrests on the US-Mexico border last year has been linked to the so called ‘Trump effect,’ where people were deterred by his strong anti-immigration rhetoric.

“It was an effect that lasted several months while migrants were doing what they do. Sit back and re-evaluate given new circumstances,” Christopher Wilson said.  

“There was a sense that America was a less migrant friendly place and that contributed to this slowdown in migrant flows from Central America through Mexico to the United States.”

But Mr Wilson noted that illegal crossings have risen over the past few months and the Trump administration is using the uptick to strengthen its case for a wall.


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