Border Militarization

Last Partially Updated March 28, 2024

The Southern Border region has always been a place of opportunity, encounter and hope, and many of the cities and towns along the border have enjoyed a diverse and lively binational and multicultural character. While cruel and unaccountable border agents have existed since the 1920s, they didn’t have the massive budgets they have today. The implementation of the pilot Operation Hold the Line, followed by Operation Gatekeeper and “prevention through deterrence” tactics in the 1990s, changed all of that.

Border militarization, which has turned the Southern Border into a mock war zone — complete with border agents masquerading as soldiers toting assault rifles and donning tactical gear, the violent and deadly border wall, and the policies that allow this to happen — has ravaged our communities for decades.

Turning the region we call home into a war zone doesn’t make us safer. In fact, it leads to more violence, corruption and even death. We can’t afford to continue with harmful enforcement-only policies that militarize our communities. We need a New Border Vision that expands public safety, upholds human rights and welcomes all people to our borders.

The Border Wall

The U.S.-Mexico border spans nearly 2,000 miles, from Brownsville, Texas / Matamoros, Tamaulipas in the east, to San Diego, California / Tijuana, Baja California in the west. The border line passes through mountains, deserts, marshes and other incredibly diverse ecological regions. The border line has also shifted north or south over the years, for example in New Mexico after the Gadsden Purchase andi n El Paso, Texas when the Rio Grande shifted its banks. In addition, many may be surprised to learn that the border wall is not always built on the international boundary line - at times it is built up to a mile away, cutting people off from their private property, restricting access to parks and protected refuge areas.

Over the last three decades, the border has become home to one of the most militarized regions in the world. The deadly border wall has divided vibrant communities, put people’s lives at risk, harmed wildlife, and destroyed sacred indigenous sites.

As of January 21, 2021, 776 miles of wall exist dividing the U.S. and Mexico -- covering about 40% of the total length of the border. A total of 654 miles of border wall were built before Trump took office by the Bush and Obama administrations. The state of Arizona had the most miles of pre-Trump border wall construction at a total of 307 miles (including both pedestrian walls and vehicle barriers). California, Texas and New Mexico each had 116 miles before Trump rapidly and forcefully continued construction.

The Trump administration constructed an estimated 458 miles of border wall. Some construction (52 miles) took place where no type of wall or barrier existed before, while the majority (373 miles) replaced old pedestrian walls or vehicle barriers with 18-feet or 30-feet tall steel bollard walls. The new forms of the deadly wall were made out of steel beams that are spaced apart and allow agents to see through the gaps, which CBP claims help “carry out its mission.”

As the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden promised not to build “another foot” of border wall if elected president. On his first day in office, President Biden issued a proclamation that froze wall construction to review the cancellation of contracts and reallocation of funds. DHS issued its review pursuant to this proclamation on June 9, 2021. Later, the Biden administration announced that unlawfully diverted military funds would be returned to the Pentagon and urged Congress to rescind remaining congressionally appropriated funds and to use some of these funds to address the harm created by the wall.

The wall review period has already passed and it is still unclear whether or not some construction will resume. There have been reports that suggest that the administration could resume border wall construction to fill in “gaps.” Further construction of the wall, especially 30-foot bollard-style walls, separates binational communities, threatens wildlife, and damages invaluable environmental resources.

Environmental groups, private property owners, indigenous communities and advocates have made calls to tear down particularly harmful portions of the wall in order to heal communities and natural habitats. In February, SBCC joined a coalition of 75 organizations in identifying priority segments of the wall for demolition.

This section gives an overview of border wall construction and associated costs, migrant deaths, levels of law enforcement in the southern border, and maps the network of checkpoints impacting the lives of southern border communities.

Pedestrian Walls

These walls can measure up to 20 feet and divide urban areas. Many were originally built from steel landing mats, and were replaced by 18- to 30-feet tall steel bollard walls.

Vehicle Barriers

Vehicle barriers are 4 to 6 feet high and block vehicle traffic. There are currently around 100 miles of this type of barrier in the southern border. The Trump Administration replaced roughly 200 miles of vehicle barriers with a new wall.


Trump-era walls include the 18- to 30-feet tall steel ‘bollard-style’ walls, which are made of see-through steel bars.

Deaths and Injuries Caused by Falls from Trump’s Border Wall

The Trump administration’s 18- to 30-foot bollard wall has proven more deadly than the previous pedestrian wall and vehicle barriers built during the Bush and Obama administrations. The goal of these higher barriers was to make it harder to cross, but it has only forced people to cross in more remote, dangerous regions or to make a harrowing attempt to go over the wall. Many individuals who have attempted to scale the new wall with ladders have suffered horrific injuries and sometimes even fatal outcomes.

Over the past year, there has been a rise in accidents and serious injuries caused by falls from the border wall. The Trump-era wall is “at least three times taller, higher than an average person and the height results in multi-system trauma… primarily leg fractures, ankle fractures, but also a lot of spinal neck and head injuries as well as deaths,” said Ieva Jusionyte, author of Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border. These serious injuries become worse if they aren’t immediately treated with medical care. Yet, instead of providing urgent medical attention, Border Patrol has reportedly expelled injured migrants to Mexico under Title 42. CBP does not track or report injuries or deaths caused by falls from border walls.

According to our analysis of media coverage and review of CBP press releases, there have been at least 39 deaths caused by falls from the border wall in 2020 and 2024, three times the total from 2012 to 2019. In 2023, there was a reported total of 6 border wall-related deaths and since the start of 2024, there have been 2 wall-related deaths. These tragic fatalities include a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who was eight months pregnant and fell backwards off of a 18-foot wall near Clint, Texas in March 2020. In April 2022, another woman, Griselda Verduzco Armenta, 23, fell off the wall near Douglas, Arizona and became tangled in rappelling equipment, dying of asphyxiation. It must be noted that it is difficult to find the exact number of deaths of people who have fallen off of the higher walls, because CBP’s statements about these deaths is likely an irregular practice and agents have often failed to carry out full investigations behind unidentified deaths, such as a woman who was found dying at the foot of the border wall.

We urge the Biden Administration to tear down Trump’s deadly barriers and implement remediation plans under the direction of the Department of the Interior, ensure wall-related deaths are adequately investigated and publicly reported, require agents to provide immediate medical attention, and require CBP to track wall-related injuries and deaths.

Wall Funding

After exorbitant spending on wall construction during the Trump administration, Biden proposed completely cutting funding in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, including unused allocated funding. However, he also proposed investing in border surveillance technologies, signaling that enforcement will remain a priority for this administration. A “virtual” or “smart” wall is not a humane or benign alternative to a physical wall - and must be adamantly opposed. In fact, a “smart” wall, surveillance and other technologies present real harms for the environment, infringe on privacy rights of border communities, and can lead to more deaths as border crossers take more dangerous routes to avoid detection.

Biden also formally rescinded Trump’s emergency declaration that was unlawfully used to justify diverting military funds to wall construction at the southern border. The Biden Administration returned over $2 billion of diverted funds to the Pentagon and urged Congress to shift previously appropriated funds to address “urgent life, safety, and environmental issues” caused by wall construction.

Construction of Trump’s lethal and ineffective wall cost U.S. taxpayers a staggering $16.3 billion tax-payer dollars — which included $9.9 billion that the Trump Administration illegally pilfered from military construction projects and counter-narcotics funding in fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

In fiscal year 2019, the Trump Administration diverted $2.5 billion away from the Department of Defense funds used to support counter-drug activities (10 USC § 284) and another $3.6 billion from military construction projects (10 USC § 2808). Then in fiscal year 2020, the Trump Administration unlawfully transferred an additional $3.8 billion dollars from the Department of Defense’s counter-narcotics funds (10 USC § 284) to continue wall construction.

In addition, at the request of President Trump, in fiscal year 2019, the U.S. Treasury Secretary also re-purposed another $601 million of unobligated funds from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF) to be used towards border wall construction. (Note: The Biden Administration plans to return about $455 million back (p.14) to the TFF).

Represented by the ACLU and SBCC, the Sierra Club took the Trump Administration to court and won. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court found that the transfers were illegal as Congress is the only entity constitutionally allowed to appropriate funds, underscoring that Trump’s blatant abuse of power to build the dangerous wall was unlawful. Trump appealed the decision and the case wound up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, under the Trump administration 346 miles out of 466 miles of border wall were built in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 using unlawfully transferred Pentagon funding.

Since the Biden Administration has decided to return unspent, unlawfully transferred funds back to the Pentagon, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts in July 2021.

In fiscal years 2018 through 2021, Congress approved another $1.375 billion dollars of funding per year for continued border wall construction for a total of $5.5 billion.

Interestingly, the Trump Administration prioritized using unlawfully transferred funds for the construction of his vanity border wall. About 31% of congressionally appropriated funds were used for border wall construction in fiscal years 2018 through 2021. Fiscal years for FY20 and FY21 have not been spent to date.

Even though President Biden’s budget request asked congressional appropriators to rescind unobligated border wall funding in Fiscal Year 2022 funding, and this request made it in both the House and Senate version of the bill that passed out of committee, the final negotiated Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 did not include these provisions.

We urge Fiscal Year 2023 congressional appropriators to rescind all unobligated funds from FY19 through FY21, and to instead invest in remediation efforts to correct the ecological and cultural harms caused by border wall construction.

Cost Estimates

No single estimate exists of the cost-per-mile for construction of the border wall. Varying factors like terrain type, materials used, and whether the land is private, tribal or federally owned contribute to different costs. Still, it is clear that the border wall cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The Office of Management and Budget wrote a letter in 2019 estimating that the then-requested $5.7 billion for continued construction of a border wall would fund approximately 234 miles, meaning that each mile could cost an estimated $24.4 million dollars. The Trump administration spent roughly five times per-mile on the wall than the Bush and Obama administrations.

Laws Waived for Wall Construction

A majority of land in the southern border is privately owned or owned by the states, according to a 2015 GAO report. Much of the land around the border in Texas is owned by private individuals - which has led to eminent domain court cases. Similarly, native lands straddle the border, and some tribes have even been split by the international boundary line.

Dozens of environmental and cultural laws have been waived and set aside for construction of the border wall. The Real ID Act, which was adopted by Congress in 2005, gives the Department of Homeland Security Secretary the authority to waive and ignore local, state and federal laws, regulations and statutes to expedite construction of physical barriers and roads.

So far, waivers have been issued 31 times - 5 times by the Bush administration and 26 times by the Trump administration, starting with laws that protected the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. Congress responded, however, by including protections for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge during the appropriations process.The Biden administration has yet to take a position on whether or not it would support rescinding the provision of the act that gives DHS the authority to issue these waivers.

Over 60 different laws have been pushed aside for wall construction, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act among many others. The chart below shows the top-10 most frequently waived laws for construction of the wall since 2005.

Apprehensions in the Southern Border Region

Irregular crossings between ports of entry at the southern border peaked around the year 2000, and sharply decreased since then. There were about 852,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2019, according to the latest government data.

Increased border enforcement in the early 2000s pushed a large portion of Mexican immigrants to cross in remote areas of the Sonoran Desert along Arizona’s border. Then beginning in 2014, more individuals started fleeing unstable conditions and violence in Central America. Many Central Americans took the quickest route through Mexico to the border with south Texas, which explains why today a majority of apprehensions take place in Texas. In 2020, there were some 90,000 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley sector, accounting for about 23% of the total. The second largest number of apprehensions occurred in the Tucson Sector.

The size of the Border Patrol steadily increased since 1992 and plateaued around 2012. Yet as the number of migrants crossing the southern border decreased, the number of agents kept rising. In fiscal year 2020, some 400,600 people were apprehended - down from 1.6 million in the year 2000. Data show, however, that the size of the Border Patrol (now nearly 20,000), are outsized for today’s apprehension levels.

The figure above shows the estimated number of apprehensions per agent per month in each fiscal year. In the early 90s, when the size of the Border Patrol was smaller, agents caught an average of 27 people per month. Today, however, when the Border Patrol is four times as large, agents encounter only about 7 people per month, on average. The data tell a clear story: there is an unnecessary large force patrolling the southern border region.

In recent years, the demographic makeup of people arriving at the border has changed. More families and unaccompanied children from Central America and other regions have been arriving at the border who aim to turn themselves into Border Patrol and request protection in the United States.

According to the most recent CBP data, 162,317 encounters with Border Patrol occurred in March 2023. This number included approximately 117,531 encounters with single adults, 32,915 encounters with individuals traveling with their families, and 11,871 encounters with unaccompanied children. However, these numbers represent crossings, not individuals and current “encounter” figures reported by CBP often double or even triple count the same people. The number of unique encounters in December was roughly 123,898.

Over one-third of the individuals and families encountered since March 2020 crossed the border at least once––but in some cases multiple times–– before. This is due to Title 42, a Trump-era order that uses the guise of public health to summarily expel individuals and families to Mexico or their countries of origin without the opportunity to request protection. Previously, from 2015 to 2019, only 7 to 14 percent of crossings were repeat apprehensions.

Criminalizing Migration

Few people are familiar with the racist origins of the improper entry (8 U.S.C. § 1325) and re-entry after deportation (8 U.S.C. § 1326) charges made against people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry. In the early 1900s, nativists wanted to restrict Mexican immigration, but the agricultural industry relied heavily on Mexican labor. In 1929, Coleman Livingston Blease, an unrepentant white supremacist Democrat who was “notorious for playing on the prejudices of poor whites to gain their votes,” proposed a law that would criminalize those who did not cross the border through an official port of entry, where Mexicans would have to pay a high fee and sometimes be subjected to kerosene baths and humiliating delousing procedures. Because of these fees and procedures, many Mexicans avoided ports of entry and informally crossed the border, as both U.S. and Mexican citizens had done for decades. Blease’s law passed and thus improper entry became a federal misdemeanor, punishable up to 6 months in prison, and a felony, punishable up to 20 years when combined with another felony.

In the first 10 years of the law being in effect, about 44,000 immigrants were prosecuted, but during World War II, the prosecutions decreased because the U.S. needed more people to fill a labor shortage while many men and women were fighting overseas (this was the start of the Bracero Program). Prosecutions of immigrants under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 and § 1326 did not again become a priority until after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, illegal entry and re-entry cases are the majority of cases prosecuted in federal courts, further clogging up the system and wasting federal resources.

In fiscal year 2007, nearly 30,000 people were charged with illegal entry and re-entry. This number more than doubled in 2008 with the expansion of Operation Streamline. Prosecutions for entry-related offenses reached an all-time high of 106,312 in FY 2019. Prosecutions of immigration charges sharply declined in April 2020, after the administration temporarily halted Operation Streamline and other programs for prosecution across the border due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data from TRAC shows that prosecution rates remain at historically low levels.

Along the Southwest border, the Trump administration spent vast resources by referring thousands of people for criminal prosecutions under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 or § 1326. This included prosecutions of asylum seekers, in violation of Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Refugee Act of 1980. The DHS Inspector General found in 2015 that the joint DOJ/DHS border prosecution program (i.e., Operation Streamline) was used regularly against those who express fear of persecution or return to their home countries, and found that en masse prosecutions may violate U.S. treaty obligations. Despite these findings, DHS had not made any notable changes in its monitoring or operation of the program, and in fact has expanded the use of prosecutions and continued to use Streamline for individuals who express a fear of return to their home country until the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s also worth noting that 8 U.S.C. § 1325 prosecutions were the driving force behind the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, when the 2018 “zero-tolerance” directive required each U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute all DHS referrals of unauthorized entry violations.

It is interesting to note that prosecutions of improper entry (8 U.S.C. § 1325) have ceased completely. This can be attributed to the continued use of Title 42 by Border Patrol, who immediately expel people encountered between ports of entry.

Also problematic is that DHS has not adequately evaluated the full costs for criminal prosecutions under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 or § 1326. A 2015 DHS Inspector General report found that CBP did not have a system in place to differentiate the costs of Streamline from other CBP enforcement activities. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that found that the Border Patrol did not effectively account for all the costs of these prosecutions, focusing only on CBP’s own costs. In December 2019, GAO published another report finding that agencies had to divert resources to support the prosecution priorities outlined by the Trump Administration in 2017 and 2018, including personnel and physical space. CBP has failed to account for the full monetary and human costs of implementing its deterrence policies, and has not provided sufficient justification for the use of taxpayer dollars.

These prosecutions have also shown to be ineffective in deterring improper crossings. Instead, it makes it harder for immigrants to regularize their status due to having a criminal record, and it may disqualify legitimate claims of asylum from courts.

These statutes that have their origins in racism should be eliminated by Congress.

Deaths & Disappearances of Migrants

For decades, thousands of people have died attempting to cross the southwestern border in remote regions. The causes of death vary. Many have died due to drowning, exposure to harsh temperatures and terrain, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and dangers related to smuggling, among others. U.S. policies have directly contributed to these deaths by forcibly pushing migrants into the desert and other dangerous terrains and away from urban centers. The lynchpin policy of ‘prevention through deterrence’ was designed to raise the cost of crossing by funneling people into the dangerous Sonoran desert and beyond.

Since then, a large body of research has shown that hardened border enforcement raised the number of deaths, and overall failed to decrease the number of undocumented entries. Moreover, the continued militarization of the border region has exacerbated the devastating loss of life in the southwest border.

In addition, many lives could have been saved by more concerted search and rescue efforts. Border Patrol focuses on enforcement, neglecting its responsibility as the primary responder for migrants in desperate need of rescue. Counties forward all the 911 calls from undocumented migrants crossing the border to Border Patrol agents who are often unresponsive.

According to a report analyzing calls received by the 24-hour Missing Migrant Crisis Line, Border Patrol only conducted a confirmed search for a distressed person in 37% of emergency cases. These searches often last less than a day and in some cases less than an hour. In 40% of distress cases that families and advocates referred to Border Patrol, the agency replied that they would not conduct a search for the distressed person. In an additional 23% of emergency cases, Border Patrol refused to provide family members or humanitarian groups confirmation that a rescue mobilization was taking place for a known person in distress.

Volunteer organizations and humanitarian groups have for decades worked to preserve human life by putting out water stations in the desert, providing medical supplies, and other aid. Yet time and time again Border Patrol agents have been documented destroying vital water supplies in the desert, further endangering human lives. No More Deaths and Coalición de Derechos Humanos recently published a report documenting and analyzing the repeated and systematic destruction of water drops in the desert. Using a series of spatial and statistical analysis techniques, combined with personal testimonies, they demonstrate that the border agency routinely destroys water tanks and other supplies. They found that during a 46-month period, about 4,000 gallons of water were destroyed.

Tracking the number of deaths in the southern border region is a difficult task for multiple reasons. Only bodies that are found by local authorities or volunteer groups are recorded, and identifying them poses additional challenges. Migrants increasingly cross through more remote areas, attempting to avoid Border Patrol agents. Lastly, while Border Patrol records the number of deaths based on the remains they encounter, there are many reasons why their figures undercount the total number of fatalities in the border. However, multiple county medical offices and volunteer organizations track and record deaths to illustrate the dangers of failed enforcement policies.

According to official Border Patrol data, since 1998 over 8,200 people have died attempting to cross the southern border. Documented deaths peaked in 2005 at nearly 500 deaths, decreasing slightly and again increasing around 2012.

As a result of an increase in attempted crossings (and often repeat crossings) in remote areas of the border due to Title 42 and record temperatures in the Southern Border region, 2021 is on track to be one of the deadliest years on record. As of May 2021, Border Patrol had recorded 203 deaths and this tally doesn’t include the summer months when the highest number of deaths occur due to exposure to the scorching heat.

The map below shows documented migrant deaths across the southern border region that occurred between 2018 and 2021 (through May). The data show that the deaths of migrants have increasingly shifted from the Sonoran desert in Arizona to the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, but also occur in California and New Mexico. Border Patrol identified the remains of 250 people in fiscal year 2020, with a majority concentrated in the state of Texas. During that year, 57 deaths were recorded in the Laredo sector, 56 in the Rio Grande Valley sector, 42 in the Tucson sector, followed by 34 in the Del Rio sector.

Data are collected by the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project and help illustrate the geography of fatalities. These data may differ from official Border Patrol data as the methodologies differ.

On-the-ground groups in Arizona and Texas also collect additional data in partnership with local medical offices to supplement official statistics, presented below. According to data from Humane Borders, 226 deaths were recorded in Arizona in 2021. More than 3,000 bodies have been found in Arizona in the last 20 years. Only about 47% of bodies found in 2021 have been identified. Most deaths were recorded in Pima County (75%), followed by Santa Cruz (9%), Cochise (8%), and Maricopa (5%). It should be noted that there are likely many more deaths in parts of the border that are sparsely populated and which have no organizations or law enforcement officials searching for remains, such as in the Boot Heel region of New Mexico.

The cause of death for most bodies recovered cannot be identified. A majority of cases in Arizona in 2021 (50%) were of skeletal remains, followed by exposure (34%), undetermined causes (6%), blunt force injury (5%) and pending (1%).

Migrant fatalities have also been increasing in Texas, and in the last 10 years more migrants now die in south Texas than in the Arizona desert. All told, researchers have identified at least 3,000 migrants in South Texas in the last two decades. Identifying remains in Texas is more complicated than other states. A majority of land in the southern region in Texas is private -- impeding access by volunteers and humanitarian aid workers. Few counties in south Texas - which are among the poorest in the country - track deaths as they do in Arizona.



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