1.1 Million Cases of Migrant Victimization in 2018

Our updated analysis anticipates 1.1 million cases of predation and victimization of undocumented migrants crossing the US southwest border in 2018.

Here's the breakdown:

Princeton Policy Advisors analysis

Princeton Policy Advisors analysis


Border Patrol typically records 300-450 deaths of illegal crossers in the desert annually.  However, when adjusted for bodies not found, bodies found by other state and local agencies, and assumed deaths on the Mexican side of the border, crossing deaths probably reach 1,000 per year.

In addition, many migrants die in the Mexican interior.  Of Mexico's 18,000 murders which can be directly attributed to US and Mexican immigration and drug policy, 10-20% are probably migrants.  Thus, an additional 1,800 - 3,600 death can be attributed to the illegal migration, bringing the aggregate total to 2,800 - 4,600 deaths.  Our best estimate puts this number around 3,000 / year, with 2,200 our 'official' estimate.  For more information, see the 'Death' tab at the linked spreadsheet.

Kidnapping and Extortion

Various third party estimates put the kidnapping and extortion of migrants in the 27,000 / year range.  The fate of those kidnapped is not entirely clear.  Many are ransomed, but what of those who are not?  They may be released, killed, or impressed to work for the cartels.  A death rate of 5% would not be particularly implausible.  In fact, given that Mexico has perhaps 40,000 unidentified remains and almost as many missing persons (some of which are surely double counted), the percentage could prove higher.  We have not made an estimate of kidnapped migrants impressed into gang service, but a number around 10,000 / year would hardly seem surprising.

Assault and Robbery

Assault numbers were below our a priori expectations, reinforcing the impression that crimes against undocumented migrants are principally economic.  By and large, criminal Mexicans do not beat up Central Americans for the fun of it.  They do it to take their money.  At shelters in central Mexico, well south of the lawless border region, 10% of those Central American migrants using the facilities reported being robbed--and that's about half way through Mexico.  By the time migrants make it through the border zone, we think it likely that 20% will have been robbed at some point along the way.

Human Trafficking

Broadly speaking, human trafficking can result from coercion, deception or as a kind of loan sharking.  Victims typically find themselves in forced labor for men, and prostitution for women.  This may result from kidnapping or deceiving an individual into an unexpected situation.  For example, women may be told that they will be taken as hotel maids, and instead be forced into prostitution and held captive there.

In addition, in some cases, migrants accept indentured servitude as compensation against an advance for coyote fees.  Such a transaction is 'voluntary', in the sense that it was the only currency the migrant could produce to pay a crossing fee.  

Rape / Coerced Sex

As part of the fees to guides (coyotes) for passage across the border, women are routinely expected to provide sexual services during the crossing.  Various sources put the estimates of coerced sex at 30-80%, with 60% the most common number.  Women constitute only 27% of those apprehended and thus presumed to attempt crossing the border.  Even so, a 60% coercion rate translates into 118,000 cases of rape or coerced sex per year.

Drug Smuggling / Extended Incarceration

If women are expected to provide sexual services as part of the coyote fee, men have traditionally been expected to carry drugs across the border.  A decade ago, this percentage was probably around 75%.  With legalization of marijuana, this number has fallen, but a precise estimate is problematic.  We think that perhaps 15% of migrant men are compelled to carry drugs today, but both a higher and lower case could be defended using reasonable assumptions.    

A migrant caught carrying 40 lbs of marijuana could face a very stiff prison term, up to 20 years.  Therefore, a key risk is extended incarceration -- which we deem as one month or more.  The US Border Patrol accepted 74,000 prosecutions in 2016, and we think 2018 will see a similar number.  To this can be added those incarcerated in US state and local prisons and in Mexican jails.  While we use 76,000 as our official estimate, the total number could be higher.  It is important to note that those incarcerated include a mixed group of migrants and professional smugglers.  Even so, the number of economic migrants incarcerated for an extended period due to immigration or drug charges probably exceeds 50,000 per year.

Border Arrests

Between the Mexican police and US Border Patrol, nearly three-quarters of undocumented migrants will be detained at some point.  This represents about half of all adverse events suffered by migrants.

Abandoned Trip

About 10% of crossers are thought to abandon their efforts en route.  This may be due to predation suffered in Mexico, for example, from being robbed or kidnapped, or fear of being arrested trying to get into the US.  This will often involve a loss of funds, including the coyote fee, representing perhaps six months of labor.  In addition, a failed entry is likely to be perceived as a personal failure or trauma by the affected individual.

Excluded Items

The above are not necessarily a comprehensive list of trauma suffered by migrants.  The following are not included:

  • Predation of Hondurans and Salvadorans crossing Guatemala
  • Miscellaneous types of harassment, price gouging and fraud
  • Some adverse events suffered by 'inadmissibles' (those trying to get through at official crossing points), including detention
  • Predation suffered by migrants already resident in the US


In all, we estimate economic migrants will suffer 1.1 million traumatic or adverse event trying to reach the US in 2018.  This represents a predation rate of 144%.  That is, those 711,000 migrants attempting to cross illegally into the US this year will suffer on average 1.4 adverse events during the journey.  In a typical case, they are likely to be detained by US Border Patrol and commonly suffer another adverse event like rape or robbery.

These statistics speak to a global scale humanitarian crisis on our borders, second only to the chaos engulfing Venezuela in our hemisphere.  

US immigration policy is directly responsible for 95% of the predation listed above.  Modifying US immigration policy -- in a way which our research indicates will be supported by conservatives -- would all but end migrant predation completely.  


Supporting assumptions, data and analysis are in the file below:

Migrant Predation - Sources and Methodologies (Aug. 2018)

We welcome any thoughts, questions or additional insights our readers may bring to the topic.