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GAO Provides an Update on Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program

In September and October 2022, Border Patrol headquarters officials visited six sectors to review program activities at the sector level. During these visits, headquarters officials also met with Missing Migrant Program coordinators to discuss the entry of data into the Border Patrol system of record for migrant deaths. 

In April, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended improving the data that U.S. Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program reports to Congress on migrant deaths. Yesterday, GAO stated that Border Patrol has taken some steps since then.

In fiscal year 2021, Border Patrol recorded a record number of migrant deaths—approximately 600—and the rescue of about 13,000 others.

Border Patrol established the Missing Migrant Program to help rescue migrants in distress and reduce migrant deaths along the southwest border. Through this program, Border Patrol coordinates with external entities, such as state and local officials, to assist migrants and to recover and identify remains. For example, the agency responds to 9-1-1 calls and other external entity reports of migrants missing or in distress. This coordination includes sharing information obtained from personal effects, fingerprints, and DNA samples. 

In April 2022, GAO found that Border Patrol had not collected and recorded, or reported to Congress, complete data on migrant deaths. In particular, GAO found that Border Patrol was not recording all migrant deaths in instances where an external entity first discovers the remains of a deceased migrant. 

At the time of this report, Border Patrol was in the early stages of implementing the nationwide Internal Operating Procedure that it issued in October 2021, which could help provide oversight at the sector level by standardizing how sectors track their missing migrant program activities.

As part of the April report, GAO recommended that Border Patrol take steps to ensure it collects and records available information on migrant deaths, including those identified by external entities. Border Control agreed with GAO’s recommendation and the watchdog now says that the agency has taken steps in response.

GAO said on November 16 that Missing Migrant Program officials in Border Patrol headquarters have sent emails to sector coordinators and conducted field visits to help standardize the collection and recording of data on migrant deaths. For example, in May 2022, Border Patrol sent the Missing Migrant Program sector coordinators an email restating the definition of a reportable death that emphasized that incidents meeting this definition must be properly recorded. Additionally, in June 2022, Tucson sector officials told GAO that sector leadership asked them to review about 140 cases in which local medical examiners identified decedents as migrants.

In September and October 2022, Border Patrol headquarters officials visited six sectors to review program activities at the sector level. During these visits, headquarters officials also met with Missing Migrant Program coordinators to discuss the entry of data into the Border Patrol system of record for migrant deaths. 

Additionally, the Missing Migrant Program held a meeting in April 2022 where officials established goals and objectives for the program. Among other things, these goals include objectives related to improving data collection and reconciling data with that of external entities. GAO said Border Patrol should develop a plan for evaluating the program overall.

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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