United States Border Patrol and Air and Marine Operations agents saved more than 5,000 people and conducted 1,400 search and rescue operations in fiscal year 2020. Since Oct. 1, 2014, agents have rescued more than 25,000 people along the Southwest border. An Arizona Department of Public Safety officer, above left, assists a Border Patrol agent with a medical extraction in the Arizona desert. CBP photo
An emergency call for assistance from a mother in Mexico is relayed to the U.S. Border Patrol on the Southwest border on a blistering 113-degree afternoon. Her adult son paid a smuggler to get him across the border and now she cannot reach him by phone. After reaching out to the smuggler, she was told that her son couldn’t keep up with the group after crossing the border, so he was left behind somewhere in the desert two days prior. Fearing the worst, she asked CBP to help her to locate her missing son. Border Patrol agents immediately relayed the call and information to the station nearest the last known whereabouts of the missing Mexican man. Simultaneously, a Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue team – better known as BORSTAR – was notified, and an Air and Marine Operations aircrew joined the search. Together, they later located the missing man in the desert with neither water nor food or shelter from the brazen heat and elements. BORSTAR provided immediate life-saving care, and the man was taken to a nearby hospital.
The summer of 2020, despite its record-setting scorching heat, saw an uptick in extremely risky search and rescue scenarios all across the Southwest border similar to the one described – dangerous for both illegal aliens and the agents who risk everything to save them.
“Smugglers play with people’s lives in this unforgiving desert,” said retired Chief Patrol Agent Roy Villarreal who was in charge of the Border Patrol in Tucson, Arizona, an area of responsibility that covers a large part of the Arizona-Mexico border, 262 miles to the New Mexico state line. “Unfortunately, [illegal aliens] put their trust in smugglers, who ultimately abandon them in the middle of one of the most environmentally dangerous places on earth. Our agents are often tasked to find, rescue and provide medical aid to those victimized by coyotes and smugglers.”
BORSTAR Special Operations Supervisor Phil Vanous led a BORSTAR team during 2019. Every rescue is different and every rescue is hard, he said.
“Some people live, some don’t. You never get used to someone dying,” Vanous said. “As part of our jobs, we sometimes spend the last moments of someone’s life with them.”
Human smuggling continues at all costs
“Every single day, smugglers put people at risk,” said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott. “They lie to vulnerable populations and prioritize profit over safety.”
“Coyotes” – human smugglers – do not care if their human cargo make it to the intended destinations. While coyotes promise they will stay with them every step of the way, in reality most who make the illegal and dangerous trek are left to fend for themselves at some point in their journey, usually with incomplete information.
“The unfortunate thing is that some of these people are misled that the highway is just on the other side of the next set of mountains or that it is only one days walk when in fact it is much longer than they anticipate,” said BORSTAR Operator Travis Carter in Yuma, Arizona, which covers another 126 miles of the Arizona and California border with Mexico.
Illegal aliens seeking to cross into the United States between ports of entry also, unwittingly, put themselves in the hands of Mother Nature and her dangerous – even deadly – creations: the Southwest desert, treacherous river currents and isolated mountain ranges.
In Texas, where the mighty Rio Grande forms the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, many risk their lives crossing the powerful and swiftly moving river. Elsewhere along the Southwest border, individuals crossing in desolate areas are rarely prepared for the blazing heat, unrelenting mountainous terrain or vast stretches of desert with no shelter and only intermittent cell phone service.
Regardless of the terrain, the temperature or the distance, Border Patrol agents are prepared and equipped to rescue those in need.
“We are saving lives on the border and away from the border every single day,” Scott said.
Despite a global pandemic that has shifted the way many do business, CBP remained on the front line to continue protecting citizens and communities.
Apprehensions down but rescues up
From Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019, CBP saw the number of individuals caught illegally crossing the Southwest border increase by 115% over the previous year for more than 851,000 encounters. To handle the record-setting numbers of illegal aliens encountered on the Southwest border during that time, CBP personnel spent approximately 50% of their time transporting and caring for illegal aliens and the other half on their primary mission of national security.
A year later, the number of encounters dropped to about 646,000.
According to CBP’s senior leadership, the decrease in illegal border crossings is likely reflective of a number of CBP programs and initiatives aimed at increasing accountability of individuals awaiting court proceedings and increasing the detection of fraudulent asylum claims.
Additionally, increased partnership and cooperation with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the building of the new Border Wall System at high-traffic points along the Southwest border, and advancements in technology have ushered the return of “badges to the border,” allowing agents performing what equates to approximately five hours of humanitarian duties during a 10-hour shift, to refocus 100% on their primary border security mission.
However, despite the decreasing number of encounters on the Southwest border in fiscal year 2020, the number of CBP rescues increased.
Since Oct. 1, 2014, more than 25,000 individuals have been rescued along the Southwest border. Over a five-year span from October 2014 to September 2019, rescues nearly doubled from almost 2,250 to more than 5,000. In particular, water rescues jumped from 86 in fiscal year 2018 to 382 just a few years later – an increase of more than 344%.
Specialized search and rescue operators
“[Border Patrol] plays a vital role in search and rescue operations because we consistently work in remote areas and are usually the first responders to situations that require a rescue operation,” said BORSTAR Operator Samuel King, who works in the Border Patrol’s Laredo, Texas, area of responsibility, which covers 171 miles of river front along the Rio Grande and 101,439 square miles of southwest and northeast Texas.
While not all 911 calls result in activation or response from BORSTAR, the specialized unit was established in 1998 in response to the growing number of Border Patrol agent and illegal alien deaths along the nation’s borders. BORSTAR has experienced agents who successfully complete specialized training in a physically and mentally demanding course. It teaches various search and rescue techniques, technical rescue, land navigation, communication, swift-water rescue, air operations and tactical medicine.
Additionally, BORSTAR agents are routinely certified as paramedics, EMTs, rescue watercraft/boat operators and other advanced specialized duties.
Terrain and geography play a significant role in the types of rescues operators face across the nation, King said.
“It helps that our agents have such in-depth
knowledge of the areas that we work in that
when a person starts describing what they see
around them, our guys are capable of narrowing
down a search area just based on what they are describing,” Carter said.
Air and Marine Operations joins the fight
Often, aviation support is needed to assist in search and rescue operations in areas like Yuma and Tucson, Arizona, where the area of responsibility is significant and time is dwindling.
“[Air and Marine Operations] conducts aviation operations enhancing chances first responders will locate and rescue persons in need rapidly, and in many cases, under dangerous and changing environmental circumstances,” said Tucson Air Branch Deputy Director Hunter Robinson.
That ability to quickly cover vast areas, helps provide aid to those in distress as close as possible to the “Golden Hour” – the time immediately following a traumatic injury when, if care is given, chances for survival are greatly increased, said Yuma Air Branch Director James Schuetzler.
The Tucson Air Branch operates the only 300-foot, hoist capable alert UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in southern Arizona, a feature Aviation Enforcement Agent Greg Tolley said, “is frequently utilized in the high-angle mountain terrain in which the majority of our rescues occur.”
In addition to life-saving tools such as hoist system training, Air and Marine Operations agents can also be certified as emergency medical technicians, bringing a myriad of training and experience to successfully and safely accomplish missions under extreme conditions, Robinson added.
From October 2019 to October 2020, one-third of all Air and Marine Operations rescues occurred within the Yuma Air Branch area of responsibility. BORSTAR in that same area worked hand in hand with the local air branch and more than doubled rescues during fiscal year 2020 from the same period a year earlier. Together, Air and Marine Operations and Border Patrol completed 1,400 life-saving rescue efforts during the fiscal year.
Scorching heat, limited food and water – a recipe for disaster
Illegal crossings between the ports of entry often peak in spring and early summer, but large numbers of people continue to cross well through the summer, even as the mercury exceeds the 100-degree mark.
“When extreme spring, summer, and fall temperatures are in play, dehydration, heat stroke, and death are very real and immediate threats to all of the individuals trying to evade detection as they move across the desert,” Schuetzler said.
Case after case of smugglers endangering the lives of illegal aliens are seen in news headlines. Smugglers abandoning people in isolated areas without food, water, or shelter; putting infants and toddlers into tiny inflatable pools as makeshift rafts and pushing them into powerful river currents; dozens of people crammed and locked into a tractor-trailer or hidden compartments in sweltering heat.
When asked about the most challenging part of his job, Vanous said, “It’s the children. And the women who tell us about being raped and taken advantage of. Smugglers have absolutely no regard for human life.”
But saving lives is nothing new for Border Patrol. More than 1,300 agents voluntarily maintain emergency medical technician and/or paramedic certifications.
“For BORSTAR, we all do our best to maintain physical fitness and endurance training to be able to withstand the rigors of rescue operations,” Carter said. “The biggest mitigating factor in some of our rescue operations is the summer heat and being able to carry enough water to be able to effect a rescue and not become a casualty of the environment yourself.”
Laredo Sector implemented Operation Midnight Sun in 2019. It was launched as a refocused, more resource-intense version of previous rescue efforts operating when most heat-related emergencies occur. In just three months, teams made about 80 rescues and recovered nine bodies. Medical services were required in 32 responses.
"There’s a look you see in their eyes.
We see it time and time again.
It’s hard to describe and impossible to forget … ”
–Phil Vanous, BORSTAR special operations supervisor
“One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is just how fast heat-related emergencies can present themselves. You can feel fine one minute, and the next feel faint and dizzy and collapse. The heat in this general area is not to be taken lightly. Environmental factors at play contribute to the deaths of undocumented aliens every summer,” King said.
Under Operation Midnight Sun, numbers of agents are increased to step up patrols and distribute medically trained personnel throughout high-risk areas, said Vanous, who led one of the teams. “The will to live is very strong in humans. As medical providers, it’s our job to do the best we can to help them.”
The Border Patrol in Tucson implemented the Missing Migrant team in June of 2015 as a way to enhance the sector’s response to requests for information about missing illegal aliens. In the more tragic cases, the program coordinated efforts to return recovered remains to family members. To prevent such tragedies, the program evolved, expanding the use of 911 placards with location information and rescue beacons that can operate in areas without cell phone service.
In 2016, the program expanded into Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley area of responsibility along the Texas-Mexico border all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and became the Missing Migrant Program. There, as part of a pilot project, Border Patrol agents collaborated with the agency’s Data Science Division, which not only provided geospatial data to identify the best locations for 911 placards and rescue beacons, but also added a data-based interactive dashboard to enable rescue teams to find distressed illegal aliens quicker.
Vanous said that by the time illegal aliens call 911, they have given up. They have endured intense suffering, and their arduous journeys have worn them down. They have been deprived of food and water, and had few safe places to rest. Most are dehydrated, vulnerable, and beyond desperate. He offers this advice to illegal aliens who would send or bring their children on such a difficult journey in hopes of entering the country illegally between the ports of entry: “Do not subject those you hold most dear in this world to these conditions. Children have a significantly more difficult time regulating their body temperatures in order to deal with these conditions. Don’t put yourself and your loved ones in this environment.”
Still, despite the implementation of new programs and initiatives, adding additional rescue beacons, and running domestic and international awareness campaigns, Border Patrol and Air and Marine Operations agents respond daily to locate and find others’ loved ones who chose to make the treacherous and arduous trek in between ports of entry to illegally enter the U.S.
“The burden of knowing you might have been the last person to speak with someone before they died is a heavy one to carry with you, especially when they were calling you out of desperation,” Carter said. “There have been a few times this year where we were unable to reach distressed people in time to rescue them, and times like those leave us with many questions amongst ourselves about our effort, allocation of resources and what we can do differently next time to save the next person.”
However, Carter says, maintaining optimism about the possible outcomes of the search and rescue operation is key.
“We know the person we are searching for is someone with family and friends somewhere that want to see and hear from them again, plus we know that is what we would want someone to do for our loved ones,” he said.
To read more about CBP rescues, click here.