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FRONTLINE JUNE 2016 Border Security Initiative

Photo of the United State's Southwest border
A Perilous Journey
Humanitarian program aims to saves lives
By Paul Koscak

The U.S. Border Patrol and its partners are once again marshaling resources this summer to rescue migrants who succumb to the Southwest’s brutal deserts and brushlands. It’s part of CBP’s Border Safety Initiative.

In their quest to enter the U.S., migrants risk injury from treacherous terrain and death from heat stroke, dehydration and hyperthermia brought on by the vast region’s scorching heat or freezing cold. Others risk drowning attempting to cross the Rio Grande River.

Border Patrol statistics vary, but upwards of 300 illegal immigrants die in the Southwest each year before completing their long, arduous and dangerous trek—and those numbers are just those who perish after entering the U.S. During fiscal year 2015, 240 died; 2014, 308; and in 2013, 445.

Nature takes its toll, but so do the smugglers with little regard for life and safety. Smugglers often abandon migrants when they can’t keep pace. Robbery, violence, torture, rape, kidnapping, slavery and even murder by human trafficking rings are among the risks during their up to 1,600-mile journey from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border.

Many migrants, including unaccompanied children, perished well before reaching the U.S. riding atop freight trains for days to avoid Mexican checkpoints. Fatigued, they fall off the car while asleep, explained Manuel Padilla, Rio Grande Valley chief patrol agent.

BORSTAR operators and agents from the McAllen Air Branch perform a mock casualty evacuation in the Rio Grande Sector for the media and officials from government and advocacy groups during a BSI event. Photo by Rod Kise
Photo of mock casualty evacuation

In the early 1990s, migrants found it expedient to cross the border into San Diego. But when the Border Patrol tightened security in that area, migrants looked for other routes into the U.S. “The traffic started moving to the more rugged terrain [of the Southwest],” said Padilla.

Most are driven to depend on unscrupulous smugglers for guidance through the vast desolate region, where summer temperatures can top 120 degrees or plummet below 32 degrees during the winter.

“The smugglers are putting them in danger,” said Padilla.

All this prompted the Border Patrol to launch the Border Safety Initiative in 1998. Today, the effort includes CBP’s Air and Marine Operations and uses technology and emergency responders to save lives and rescue those who fall prey to smugglers or the harsh conditions. Working with the Office of Public Affairs, the Border Safety Initiative also stresses prevention by telling these shocking stories to potential migrants before they leave their countries.

“Saving lives isn’t just Border Patrol business, but everyone’s business,” Padilla said.

The Border Patrol’s BORSTAR units play a major role in the initiative. These search, trauma and rescue specialists locate people in distress and render medical care in all weather conditions and terrain. In most cases, BORSTAR agents offer the only hope for those stranded in the desert since other emergency help is usually in a city many miles away.

BORSTAR operators evacuate a mock casualty to an awaiting AMO helicopter during a BSI demonstration near Falfurrias, Texas. Photo by Rod Kise
Photo of mock casualty drill

BORSTAR agents are aided by search and rescue dogs during their patrols—Labradors, German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Their keen sense of smell allows them to track migrants who sometimes wrap their shoes in carpet to hide evidence of their journey. These well-trained dogs can locate the stranded, recover human remains or follow roaming groups of migrants, significantly reducing search time, explained Jesse Esquivel, a supervisory Border Patrol agent who works the Del Rio Sector in Texas.

He manages a team of 10 agents who comb the desert every day. “We search the high-risk areas,” he said, regions migrants frequent to avoid detection. “They are remote, not close to towns. Being out there, we can also respond quickly.”

“Water is an issue, some drink from stock ponds polluted by cattle,” said Esquivel, “This causes even more problems.”

Local law enforcement and the Border Patrol share a 911 emergency telephone system that can locate stranded migrants. Calls from stranded migrants are transferred to the Border Patrol and cell tower signals provide GPS coordinates of the caller, accurate within 100 yards.

Rescue beacons are one of the most innovative tools to assist the distressed. The towers are placed along known smuggling routes and in areas experiencing numerous rescues or fatalities. The beacons are high intensity blue lights visible up to 10 miles at night or in low-light conditions.

Victims simply press a large red button to activate the beacon. Directions are displayed in English, Spanish and Tohono O’odham along with a pictorial guide for those who can’t read. (Tohono O’odham is the language and name of a Southwest tribal nation.)

Some beacons are equipped with an emergency telephone and they’re are well used. There were 70 activations during fiscal year 2013; 139 in 2014; 158 in 2015 and 120 as of March 31 this year.

BORSTAR operators evacuate a mock casualty to an awaiting AMO helicopter during a BSI demonstration near Falfurrias, Texas. Photo by Rod Kise
Photo of a mock casualty drill

CBP’s Air and Marine Operations partners with the Border Patrol to save lives. A-Star and Blackhawk helicopter crews add significant range to the searches. Blackhawks have emergency medical technicians on board, carry medical supplies and are equipped to hoist injured migrants from the desert.

All U.S. Border Patrol agents can offer basic medical care. The Border Patrol also employs more highly trained personnel, including 4,150 first responders, 730 emergency medical technicians and more than 70 paramedics. Overall, the Border Safety Initiative has resulted in 1,898 rescues from fiscal year 2012 until now, saving more than 29,000 lives. Those numbers attest to CBP’s commitment that all lives matter, including those who break the law.

While CBP invests significant resources to rescue those in distress, the initiative also focuses on prevention. CBP, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, use a wide range of avenues to reach potential migrants. CBP’s communication campaigns emphasize the perils migrants will endure on the journey and that there’s no path to citizenship.

The latest campaign shares testimonials of migrants describing horrific experiences; involves outreach through embassies in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico and publicizes these dangers in newspapers, radio and television in those countries.

Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske launched a similar campaign in 2014 with a press conference in the Rio Grande Valley. Following that event, the Office of Public Affairs engaged news media in Houston, Laredo, Miami, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., resulting in 427 news stories available to 13 million television, 6 million radio and 3 million print news consumers.

In 2015, OPA’s Jaime Ruiz conducted 32 interviews, many of which were broadcast live, reaching millions of Spanish-language audiences throughout the U.S.

Earlier this year, U.S. Border Patrol Sectors hosted media and stakeholder events in San Diego, Laredo, Texas, Del Rio, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

CBP also reaches out to local officials, landowners, international delegations from Central America, non-governmental organizations, law enforcement agencies and congressional staff, resulting in a productive exchange of ideas. Some events focus on of Border Patrol technology and resources.

Other activities allow participants to experience the harsh terrain and weather conditions migrants encounter during their perilous journey.

In May, for example, the Rio Grande Valley Sector enclosed news media in a semi-trailer to experience firsthand the heat, lack of air and isolation some migrants suffer at the hands of smugglers. The event drew four non-governmental organizations, four legislative staff, two landowners and 29 reporters. Participants witnessed a BORSTAR K-9 team follow migrant tracks in the desert; a mock rescue, complete with triage; and a helicopter extraction.

While media and stakeholder events are ultimately designed to deter potential migrants, they also foster collaboration and understanding, and address concerns raised by some organizations.

“When you build bridges we see each other as people, not caricatures,” said Juanita Molina, director of the Border Action Network, a human rights group that advocates for border and immigrant communities. Her six-year association with the Border Patrol, getting to know agents and the dangers they face, and an understanding that both organizations share some common goals has influenced her perspective.

“What we share is to take death out of the immigration equation,” she said. “Our goal is to save lives. We all see this devotion by the Border Patrol.”