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Opinion: Border walls lead to injuries and death. It’s a sinister way to enforce immigration laws.

President Donald Trump tours the border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego County on March 13, 2018. At right is Rodney Scott, Chief Patrol Agent of the San Diego Sector of the Border Patrol.
(K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Disorientation while climbing border walls has contributed to incalculable suffering.

Rios is director, U.S.-Mexico Border Program, American Friends Service Committee. He lives in Chula Vista.

In June 2018, I attended a meeting between local San Diego immigration advocates and then-Border Patrol San Diego Sector Chief Rodney Scott. Then-President Donald Trump’s eight border wall prototypes were already fixtures in Otay Mesa, so discussion about what Trump’s walls would look like, and what features they would incorporate, were urgent concerns for me. When I asked Scott how border wall designers had arrived at 30 feet as the established height for the new replacement border wall in the region, he told me that the Border Patrol ran psychological field tests to determine the height at which an average person would become disoriented and stop climbing the border wall.

Nora Vargas, Pedro Rios and Dr. Amy E. Liepert write about a surge in deaths and injuries from immigrants scaling and falling off a taller border wall.

That disorientation has since contributed to incalculable suffering — from people falling to their deaths to others sustaining devastating life-altering injuries. It’s a sinister way of developing enforcement policy.

According to newly released San Diego County data, injuries from falls have multiplied nearly five times since then, increasing from 87 traumatic injuries in 2019 to 394 in 2021. During that same period, deaths increased from one in 2019 to 12 in 2021.

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The Mexican Consulate General in San Diego shared and email with me last month that during fiscal year 2021, 80 percent of Mexican nationals with injuries repatriated through the San Ysidro Port of Entry — about 198 people — were harmed while crossing into the United States falling from the border wall. These included “broken legs, ankles, backs, arms or hips, or even more serious injuries.”

An archived Department of Homeland Security (DHS) web page from Dec. 12, 2018, headlined “Walls Work,” claimed that the newly constructed 30-foot steel bollard wall stopped “a violent mob of 1,000 people” and that “there were no breaches along the newly constructed border wall areas” compared to older steel landing mats that made up the border wall, in place since the 1990s. Under Trump, it said, “we are building a new wall for the first time in a decade that is 30-feet high to prevent illegal entry and drug smuggling.”

Yet according to The Washington Post, Trump’s border wall experienced 3,272 breaches during fiscal years 2019 to 2021 — almost three breaches per day — at a cost of $2.6 million for repairs. Most of the breaches occurred in California, with the data showing the El Centro sector registered 1,867 and the San Diego sector 866.

Despite the propaganda from DHS that walls work, border walls can have devastating consequences for human life. By tracking media sources and government press releases, the Southern Border Communities Coalition has documented 20 deaths in 28 months from January 2020 to April 2022 that resulted from falls off border walls in the four states — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border. Four people have already died this year. Prior to this spike, there were only 10 deaths from 2012 to 2019, or little more than one a year. This data is incomplete, however, because the government does not keep track of injuries or deaths resulting from falls off border walls. And some deaths occur on the Mexican side of the border so the number may be even higher.

After a body was discovered in April 2021 near the secondary border wall barrier in Otay Mesa, speculation arose about whether the person died from falling from the border wall. I inquired then with a DHS liaison about whether the government maintained any data related to border wall injuries or deaths. The answer was no. She informed me again last month, with a resounding “no,” that there is no government data on border wall-related injuries or deaths.

This trend of injuries and deaths is not exclusive to San Diego and Imperial counties. Tragic incidents of people falling to their deaths or sustaining serious injuries have occurred in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. That the U.S. government isn’t collecting data related to border wall-related injuries and deaths undermines its responsibility for accountable policy and only allows for a false and misguided narrative that border walls are harmless.

Years of militarized border enforcement have introduced various iterations of defensive architectural designs for border walls promoted by both Democratic and Republican administrations. All have mostly been a boondoggle for big business and part of the political theater to appease immigration hardliners.

Now, the government’s failure to abide by its international obligations to respect asylum rules, under both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, exacerbates the potential for dangerous border crossings, including attempting to scale the border walls. With Biden building more walls in South Texas, the humanitarian crisis migrants already face will only worsen, and more people will die and more will endure terrible injuries.


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