Migrant Drownings in Pacific Ocean Soared after Border Wall Expansion

Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post
The San Diego sector of the border wall in April 2018.

The number of migrants who drowned in the Pacific Ocean trying to reach the United States rose sharply after the Trump administration added 30-f00t steel barriers in the San Diego area, according to an article published Thursday in JAMA, the American Medical Association’s journal.

The border wall expansion was completed in San Diego in 2019. From 2020 to 2023, 33 migrants died in the Pacific, according to U.S. government and United Nations data cited by the report’s authors. During the four-year period that preceded the barrier project, one drowning death occurred.

The U.S. border barrier in the San Diego area extends into the waves of the Pacific at Imperial Beach. Drownings occur when migrants attempt to swim around the structure or reach the U.S. side in boats.

The study adds to previous reporting in medical journals that has identified an increase in fatal accidents and a fivefold jump in traumatic injuries following border wall expansion in San Diego, due to migrants falling from greater heights. The falls often occur when migrants are attempting to descend the structure and lose control, landing on their backs.

Anna Lussier, a University of California at San Diego medical student who is one of the report’s authors, said she took interest in the incidents while treating migrants with falling injuries in a trauma unit. She also spoke with lifeguards along Imperial Beach who have witnessed drownings and migrants tossed into the surf by callous smugglers.

Lussier said it was too early to draw conclusions about a correlation between border wall expansion and fatalities, and research is ongoing. “The one thing we can say is drownings have increased,” she said in an interview.

Then-President Trump spent roughly $11 billion to build 450 miles of new barriers along the Mexico border during his term. The barriers in the San Diego area make up the most formidable span along the entire U.S.-Mexico boundary, with two parallel steel fences and a roadway running between them that allows U.S. agents to respond quickly.

The obstacles have not stopped migrants. Illegal border crossings have soared to record levels over the past three years, and migrant deaths – from drownings, accidents and heat stroke – are also at all-time highs.

In the San Diego area, smuggling organizations on the Mexican side use power tools to saw through the fence and create breaches, or used makeshift ladders to whisk migrants up and over the barrier. Other crews try to outrace authorities using jet skis and power boats to make dangerous landings on U.S. beaches north of the border.

Those who try to swim around the border wall risk their lives in pounding surf and swirling currents.

Border Patrol agents in the San Diego area have been making 1,000 to 1,500 arrests per day in recent weeks, making it the second-busiest crossing point along the U.S.-Mexico border, after southern Arizona.

Medical researchers in San Diego have been tracking deaths and injuries along the border in recent years in part because many of the migrants arrive to the area’s hospitals and trauma wards. These patients often require costly, long-term care but lack U.S. health insurance, triggering millions in unreimbursed costs and prompting some calls for federal support.

Peter Lindholm, the report’s co-author and a professor at University of California at San Diego’s Department of Emergency Medicine, said more research was also needed into nonfatal cases that can result in significant injury.

“If more people are drowning or having accidents, it’s important for local emergency medical services and health care systems to know,” said Lindholm.

Lindholm and Lussier also found a 30 percent increase in drownings in irrigation canals along the border since the completion of the border wall expansion, primarily in the All-American Canal in California’s Imperial County.