Cornell Law School Logo - white on transparent background

Volume 109, Issue 2


Lethal Immigration Enforcement

Abel Rodriguez

Assistant Professor of Law, St. John’s University School of Law. 

22 Feb 2024

Increasingly, U.S. immigration law and policy perpetuate death. As more people become displaced globally, death provides a measurable indicator of the level of racialized violence inflicted on migrants of color. Because of Clinton-era policies continued today, deaths at the border have reached unprecedented rates, with more than two migrant deaths per day. A record 853 border crossers died last year, and the deadliest known transporting incident took place in June 2022, with fifty-one lives lost. In addition, widespread neglect continues to cause loss of life in immigration detention, immigration enforcement agents kill migrants with virtual impunity, and immigration law ensures courts routinely order people deported to their deaths. As these preventable deaths persist, particularly among migrants of color, the Supreme Court has all but foreclosed causes of action against individual federal agents for wrongful death. It has done so most notably in its recent 2022 decision Egbert v. Boule, further limiting judicial remedies for constitutional violations and sanctioning use of force as a routine function of immigration enforcement.

This Article provides a novel perspective on law enforcement and race. It is the first to provide a comprehensive examination of lethal immigration enforcement, arguing that racialized policy rationales, impunity instituted by courts, and prevailing political paradigms have coalesced to render migrants of color expendable. Therefore, the enforcement system must be reimagined. While scholars have begun to analyze the immigration system in terms of “slow death,” or harms that occur over time, a holistic view of “spectacular deaths,” those readily perceived, is lacking. After mapping how the immigration enforcement system takes migrant lives, this Article interrogates the policy rationales for lethal enforcement in light of largely unexamined data, finding that anti-Blackness drives punitive immigration detention and the perceived dangerousness of Latinx migrants fuels lethal border policies. It then turns to an analysis of wrongful death actions and recent Supreme Court doctrine, poised to impede remedies for excessive force in courts further and escalate racialized violence against noncitizens. Ultimately, given the urgency of addressing rising migrant mortality, it calls for a paradigm shift beyond liberal reforms to end lethal enforcement and its racial subordination.

To read this Article, please click here: Lethal Immigration Enforcement.