Skip to content

This isn’t quite and wholly true

The number of migrant deaths in 2021 was 650, a stark reminder of the human cost of US immigration policies

It’s the cost of people trying to breach US immigration policies. To say that it’s the cost of the policies is to make the assumption that there should be no constraints or limits at all as the default position.

24 thoughts on “This isn’t quite and wholly true”

  1. Er, no Tim. We compare the consequences of policies against the alternatives. Hence deaths from border crossings are a consequence of guarded borders.

    May not be the worst option when all costs are considered, but it’s still a cost. Where would arguments against government policies be if outcomes were only costs when people follow the ideals of the legislators?

    I’m not sure the relevance of any default position. The normal policy isn’t relevant because a position can’t be the baseline against which to measure itself. And the natural default is obviously that nothing is done. May or may not be desirable, but default it is.

  2. @JK277
    You don’t think this through, do you? Why the restrictions at the border at the first place? What would happen if you just had an open border? Do you really think the people of the USA – nothing to do with the government, the police, the border officials – just the ordinary people, would stand idle & let unwanted immigrants flood their country? What would happen is they’d take the remedy into their own hands. Vigilante groups & lynchings. Anyone who even looked like an immigrant could be subject to violence & murder.
    That’s what the border restrictions are there to prevent. So the regrettable (if you feel inclined to reget) casualties accruing to the border restrictions are the result of trying to prevent much greater carnage.
    All laws ultimately depend on consent. The border jumpers don’t consent to the laws of the country they seek to enter. Do you want Americans to withdraw their consent to the same?

  3. And the natural default is obviously that nothing is done. May or may not be desirable, but default it is.

    I don’t think the “natural” default of a border is that it isn’t enforced; that’s like saying the default for an aeroplane is that it doesn’t fly.

  4. 650? Proof of Dilbert’s contention that made-up numbers are more useful than accurate numbers.

  5. Dennis, Pointing Out The Obvious

    It’s the cost of people trying to breach US immigration policies.

    Given that the Biden Administration’s policy is to allow breaching without consequences, the fact is the 650 deaths mostly come from other factors.

    The unlucky soul that drowns trying to cross the Rio Grande drowns because of the river, not because of any attempt by US authorities to keep them from entering the USA illegally. The same goes for the 40+ souls in a tractor-trailer; the Coyotes running them into the USA killed them, not USA policy or any attempt at enforcing policy.

  6. Prohibition as a policy cost a lot of lives in dodgy moonshine and criminal violence, we wouldn’t let the prohibitionists write those lost lives off by saying they were “people who died as a result of violating Prohibition, not as a result of Prohibition itself”.

    On the other hand, the fact lots of people died isn’t, by itself, the thing that made Prohibition an undesirable policy. If only it were true, “More people would have died without Prohibition since alcohol consumption would be higher and even legal, regulated alcohol is harmful” would be a valid counterargument that the Prohibition deaths were worthwhile. Or even, if only it were true, “as a nation we’re an illiberal bunch who greatly prefer a land in which alcohol is harder to obtain, so despite Prohibition resulting in more deaths than the alternative, we accept that as a cost of the policy because we think on balance it makes the country a better place”.

    Realistically the defense of a strict immigration policy probably comes closer to the second of the two – people who live here want to have a choice who else comes in, and if that means some people who try to violate those rules will inevitably die in the process, then so be it. (Something closer to the first argument might be the claim lives are saved, net, by preventing illegal migrants with a higher homicide rate reaching our borders – but I don’t think the math works for that. Total EU homicides are about 4k per year according to Eurostat, whereas migrant deaths in the Med have been running over 1k a year for some time, peaking at over 5k per year. Hard to see how that gives a net gain.)

    The particular challenge with migration policy is that even a relatively liberal approach is still going to turn some people down and they’re still going to make an effort to get in. The cut border deaths to near-zero levels either requires an absolute free-for-all as a policy, so that anyone can enter and stay for any purpose, or to have a policy that exists only on paper with the apparatus of government committing to perform no enforcement activity. Even then there’ll be people who die en route because eg they undertook long journeys through dangerous areas by foot or on the backs of lorries, so a country committed to zero migration deaths needs not just to open its borders but to lay on free, safe transport options direct from the world’s emigration hotspots. A real election-winner, that proposal.

    Alternatively Australia reduced migration deaths from high to zero by making it clear that dangerous illegal crossings had no chance of succeeding in gaining residency. That route to zero is probably not tenable for the US, EU or UK – less geographically isolated so their irregular migration routes are harder to totally seal off – so any politically feasible migration policy is going to produce some level of deaths. Still fair to consider how that level of deaths can be pushed downwards by appropriate policy choices, with better enforcement being one option, rather than washing hands of the dead entirely.

  7. The number of migrant deaths in 2021 was 650, a stark reminder of the human cost of US immigration policies

    I bet the numbers are a hell of a lot higher, lots of women and kids struggle to make it across the harsh Northern Mexico border region and are simply left behind to die by the “Coyotes”. Their bodies rapidly consumed by the local wildlife. Their numbers are huge and uncounted, certainly a hell of a lot more than a measly 650 a year.

  8. 650 died. 1.6 million didn’t. That must look pretty good odds to a desperado hoping for a better life.

  9. @JG

    With people walking all the way from Central America, I imagine huge numbers die en route. But hard to get decent figures. The Med drowning are 1k+ per year and have been for many years, peaking at 5k+, wouldn’t be surprised if the Latin American caravan deaths are similar.

  10. @JK277
    Hence deaths from border crossings are a consequence of guarded borders.

    I presume that you lock the doors and secure the windows to your home?
    So, by your logic, if someone injures or kills himself attempting to gain entry, it is because you locked your doors and secured your windows.

  11. The reason the U.S. has such a difficult time with these issues is not because of a right or wrong policy, but because we don’t even have a clear policy.

    Exhibit A:

    Whether you want border enforcement, or free education/health insurance/housing for anyone who sneaks in, at least make the rules clear, and the situation will be that much more manageable.

  12. what philip sais… Crossing the US border is safer than crossing a random street as a pedestrian..

  13. @asiaseen

    In English law, you owe a duty of care to trespassers on your property, which means certain defenses against home invasion (barbed wire, man traps etc) are Not Okay. Obviously locking windows and doors is fine, but there is a limit to how far you can go with “their own fault for trying to break in to a place I’m entitled to protect”.

    Anyway, I think JK’s point is fair. We always should assess policies against their counterfactual, and not dismiss entirely natural and predictable consequences of the policy as “nothing to do with the policy” just because the victims broke the law. Certainly wouldn’t be sensible to assess Prohibition or the War on Drugs that way. But the problem with immigration policy is that the only low or zero casualty counterfactual for the US/EU would be actively open borders, which is not viable politically.


    Yeah the same party that gives us “Do not come!” then also gives us “sanctuary cities” in which rules about who is allowed to come will be deliberately not enforced. Incoherent madness. And as Philp/Grikath say, people will take their chances – even if based on anecdotal success stories rather than crunching out accurate stats.

  14. @Anon

    To complicate things even further, there is a different speech for different groups of migrants.

    Apparently, Guatemalans get “Do not come,” Mexicans and Salvadorans get “Come on in,” Cubans get “Do not come,” Syrians get “Come on in,” Ukrainians get “Let’s fix your own country,” Somalians and Haitians get “Diversity is our greatest strength.”

    I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why anyone is confused about the law.

  15. @Anon
    In English law, you owe a duty of care to trespassers on your property

    Yes I am aware of the duty of care but where did I mention anything about barbed wire, mantraps or otherwise supplementing the locking of doors and securing windows? Should a potential intruder attempt to climb a drainpipe and fall off where is the housholder’s duty of care? Removing all drainpipes to avoid the temptation?

  16. And the natural default is obviously that nothing is done.

    And thanks for Anon’s mention of Prohibition that neatly illustrates the point I’m about to make.

    For some reason people generally fail to understand that law & order are not the default position. The default is might is right. And that’s what Prohibition let lose on the American public. You pass laws that don’t have sufficient consent you’re going to end up in a conflict of who has the most might. Both between those who profit by breaking them & between the law breakers & the law enforcers.

    You don’t enforce laws that people believe they voted for, they’ll ignore other laws. And governments rule only by consent. They don’t have the power to compel. Because the agents the government rely on to enforce the laws, the police or in extremis the military are drawn from the same public.

  17. If you object to migrants from open borders, why not legalize drugs worldwide (would probably cut immigration by 80%) and move to central American paradises?

  18. @asiaseen

    Just as there are degrees by which you can protect a property from trespass, there are degrees to which a border can be protected, and some measures go beyond the bounds of public palatability/legality. The EU’s Frontex border agency has recently had a scandal involving illegal “pushbacks” of unseaworthy boats, for example, which in the householder’s analogy comes rather closer to the man-trap than the locked window in terms of risk of harm to the intruder. To be honest I imagine many voters across Europe are rather more sympathetic to those in Frontex caught knowingly breaking the law to keep migrants out, than they are to those migrants trying to get in – but one more photo of a drowned two-year-old, in the vein of Alan Kurdi in 2015, and no doubt a loud swathe of public opinion will want to try schaffening das all over again.

    The ability to protect the interior of your home makes a rather poor analogy for the difficulty of sealing off an entire country, unless it’s a city-state with walls around it and only a few gates in. Something like a country house doorman or gatekeeper deciding who to open the locked door to, works as an analogy for airports or the disembarkation of ferry passengers. But a country’s border can be many hundreds of miles of beach, or river, or forest, or desert… not as simple as enforcing regulations at a single point of entry. Man-traps and barbed wire were at one time a popular solution to the issue of poachers encroaching on the country estate that your home is set on, a challenge better comparable in complexity to the national one. The armed gamekeeper as a border guard. Yes, I accept extending your analogy beyond the four walls of one’s house, but much property that needs protecting from intruders – and much of a country – is outdoors, and the outdoorsy bits are where most of the problems lie.


    A related inconsistency: treatment of people aiming to walk across the border seems much more open than for people who want to fly in. If you’re going to let them in and let them live here permanently, why not let them fly in? But the kind of people who are allowed to walk across the border are the kind of people who won’t be granted a visa to fly in. If you honestly cared about these people’s wellbeing, and them not being ripped off, raped or murdered during hundreds of miles of trekking through dangerous territory, you’d let them fly in. But you won’t. (Substitute “dangerous dinghy crossing” or “dangerous ride in the back of a lorry” for the same issue in the EU/UK context.) The idea seems to be that putting themselves in harm’s way proves that a person is desperate enough to deserve entry. But the idea this proves the entry is “deserved” is very much disputable, while requiring tens of thousands of people to put themselves in harm’s way is obviously inhumane. I can’t see how such a system is justifiable either from the perspective of someone conservative on immigration or someone who’s liberally pro-immigration. It’s not even a sensible compromise between the two positions.

  19. What we need to do is have someone build and deploy fake sharks in the English Channel. As soon as the boat hits the water on the French side, send the robotic shark (with prominent out-of-the-water fin), circling the front-ward side of the boat, if they persist, start making it do dives underneath the boat with the blunt fin just contacting the underside.

    That’ll make the invaders think twice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *