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GAO: Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program Lacks Data and Oversight

In a report released on April 20, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says U.S. Border Patrol Border Patrol has incomplete data on migrant deaths and does not have a plan to evaluate how its Missing Migrant Program is working.

According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) report, more than 4,900 individuals were rescued and about 300 deceased migrants were found along the southwest border in fiscal year 2019. Congress expressed concern regarding migrant deaths occurring along the southwest border, and a committee report accompanying DHS’s fiscal year 2020 appropriation directs CBP to report data on migrant deaths, describe plans to help reduce the number of migrant deaths, and describe its coordination efforts with external entities. The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019 also requires CBP to produce an annual report on all unidentified remains discovered during the reporting period on or near the border between the United States and Mexico.

Border Patrol issued nationwide procedures in September 2021, which are intended to help standardize how it coordinates with external entities to respond to and track reports of missing and deceased migrants. GAO’s review found that Border Patrol has coordinated with external entities (e.g., state and local officials) and undertook various efforts to help reduce the frequency of migrant deaths. GAO also notes in its report that Border Patrol has undertaken various efforts to help respond to migrants who may be in distress, such as placing rescue beacons and 9-1-1 placards in remote areas. As of January 2022, Border Patrol had deployed 165 rescue beacons across the southwest border and as of February 2022 had placed 2,518 of the 9-1-1 placards on accessible land with cell phone coverage to instruct migrants to call for help and assist rescue personnel with locating migrants in distress.

Additionally, Border Patrol officials at the Rio Grande Valley sector told GAO that they regularly assist in the identification process by examining the personal effects of decedents and extracting data from cell phones. In cases where a migrant decedent has an identity card in their possession, these officials said that they run the name against their processing and detention databases, and matches, if any, are shared with the appropriate external entity. The officials also told GAO that smugglers operating in the Rio Grande Valley often move people in groups and, if stopped, group members may be able to provide information to help identify a deceased migrant who had been traveling in the group.

However, the government watchdog also found that Border Patrol has not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths, or disclosed associated data limitations. Border Patrol has a policy for recording information on migrant deaths but GAO found sectors have not entered all available information on migrant deaths into a tracking system consistent with that policy. In particular, GAO found Border Patrol is not recording all migrant deaths in instances where an external entity first discovers the remains.

The U.S. Border Patrol set up the Missing Migrant Program in 2017 to help rescue migrants in distress and reduce migrant deaths along the southwest border. GAO found that Border Patrol collects and reviews information about program activities but lacks a plan to evaluate the program overall. Border Patrol sector officials told GAO that they reviewed their own sectors’ data to assess the program as needed. For example, they assess whether or not they should add or move rescue beacons in particular areas, based on data recorded on the location of migrant deaths. 

It is worth noting that Border Patrol is in the process of implementing the nationwide Internal Operating Procedure it issued in October 2021. This nationwide guidance may help provide oversight at the sector level by standardizing how sectors track their missing migrant program activities. According to the Internal Operating Procedure, each sector is to submit a weekly report to headquarters that describes major activities, developments, and initiatives in its area of responsibility. GAO believes these reports are positive steps to help the agency monitor field activities, but that Border Patrol could benefit from a more robust evaluation of the impacts of the Missing Migrant Program to reduce the frequency of migrant deaths and strengthen response efforts. 

GAO’s report concludes with three recommendations to the Chief of Border Patrol:

  • Take steps to ensure that the agency collects and records available information on migrant deaths, including those identified by external entities, along the southwest border. 
  • Include known migrant deaths, including those reported by external entities, and any data limitations in public agency reports and those to Congress. 
  • Develop a plan with time frames to evaluate the Missing Migrant Program. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with all three recommendations and said that the Missing Migrant Program plans to record any additional information on reported migrant deaths, including from external entities, as applicable, and note any limitations in its reports. DHS also stated that Border Patrol plans to evaluate the program annually and that this evaluation will include reporting procedures and data integrity, among other efforts. Further, DHS said that the Missing Migrant Program National Coordinator plans to develop an annual plan, establish program goals and timeframes, and issue an after-action report.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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