Saving Lost Migrants in the Scorching Texas Heat
Border Patrol Agent Guadalupe Ramirez scouts a South Texas ranch known for its illegal alien traffic. Signs are up to help illegal
aliens when they run into trouble and actually need rescuing by the Border Patrol. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
Border Patrol Agent Guadalupe Ramirez knows he’s got a long, hot day ahead of him. Staring out at the inky blackness in the pre-dawn hours of an August day in South Texas, he and his partner, Border Patrol Agent Frank Armendariz, drive from their office in McAllen about an hour to the desolate, scrub brush area of a Texas ranch, contemplating the awaiting heat and humidity. Forecast puts the temperatures over 100 degrees this day. Despite the unbearable heat ahead, they know they have to go searching, searching for those who don’t – and those who do – want to be found.
“I’ll be looking for foot sign,” said Ramirez, a member of Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue – better known as BORSTAR, the select group of agents trained in search and rescue operations. BORSTAR agents are also certified as emergency medical technicians and some of them are even certified paramedics.
The foot sign he searches for will be from illegal aliens dropped off before a Border Patrol checkpoint located sometimes dozens of miles north of the border. They would now be on foot and making their way around the checkpoint through the dense Texas brush. It’s a journey the smugglers tell them might only take a few hours or a day but can stretch into several days in the relentless heat.
Finding those evading the Border Patrol is challenging. Finding those wanting to be found – hot, tired, starved and confused by days wandering in the scrub brush and oppressive heat on these massive South Texas ranches – can sometimes be equally challenging. When an illegal alien calls, Border Patrol uses the signal from the cell phone tower to determine a general location, which often is a search radius of 10 to 20 miles or even 40 miles from the tower. That puts the rescue into what agents call Phase 1 – a nearly impossible task to find someone still alive after what could end up being days’ worth of searching.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack when that happens,” Ramirez said. Armendariz, checking the sandy dirt along a fence line in the middle of a ranch, added when and where the call for help comes is a hit-or-miss proposition. “After a slow day or two, you can expect the following days to be busy.”
When the location of illegal aliens is narrowed down to an area within a few hundred yards of where those people actually are, the better the chance they will be found alive. The Missing Migrant Program is increasing that chance of finding more illegal aliens in need alive. In fiscal year 2017, the Rio Grande Valley Sector saw 350 cases for the lifesaving program. The next year, as immigration patterns shifted to the east from the deserts of Arizona, the sector saw the numbers spike to 2,800.
The Missing Migrant Program uses several tools to get more people into Phase 2 — giving them a much better chance of being located. In Phase 2 most of the lost wanderers’ locations are narrowed down to a few hundred yards, although some still could be several miles away. Working with non-governmental organizations, local law enforcement, forensic professionals, foreign governments, families and charity groups, just to name a few, the Border Patrol said the program saves lives.
Greatly improving the illegal aliens’ chances of survival are the 100 signs put up on these Texas ranches. Based on input from local agents, known flow patterns, and rescue and recovery operations, the signs are placed where illegal aliens are most likely to see them. The signs are in Spanish and have a unique identifier that tells Border Patrol agents exactly where the illegal aliens are located. The signs encourage those lost and wanting to be rescued to call 911. When local law enforcement passes the information to Border Patrol, search and rescue teams rush to the area, hoping for a positive outcome.
Beacons are another tool helping Border Patrol find those wanting to be found. Placed at strategic locations along known smuggling routes, those lost can find these towers because the high-intensity blue lights atop that come on automatically after dark and can be seen for miles. With instructions in English, Spanish, and in this South Texas area, Mandarin Chinese, lost immigrants can activate a radio signal that notifies Border Patrol dispatchers of that particular tower.
On this particular day, Ramirez and Armendariz didn’t get the call for help from any illegal aliens in their area – although that doesn’t mean no one required saving. They did find a group of eight illegal aliens, most of whom ran when confronted. After being caught, the group received medical attention and cold water from a Border Patrol emergency medical technician to help them recover from the brutal heat and humidity.
Ramirez and Armendariz – both soaked with sweat from the most recent pursuit of illegal aliens – also rehydrate themselves and get ready for the next chase, or the next rescue or recovery, whichever the case. It’s a task Ramirez admitted can drain as much as a dozen pounds of water off him a day. But he knows finding those out in this heat – especially those left behind by smugglers and in dire need – is more than a job, it’s someone’s life.
“I talked with one gentlemen who thought about his family,” Ramirez said. The more the man – left behind by a smuggler – thought about his loved ones back in Central America, the more he realized he might never see them again and maybe his body would be lost. “He said, ‘My kids were going to go without a father.’ I told him he made the right choice.”
A sign posted by Border Patrol on a ranch in South Texas tells lost illegal aliens their exact location to speed their rescue by agents. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
A Simple Metal Sign has History of Making Life-or-Death Differences
By John Davis
Started in Tucson, Arizona, in 2015, most of the rescues and recoveries from the Missing Migrant Program have shifted to Texas, along with the shift in illegal crossings. Years ago, there was an extremely large amount of traffic in San Diego. When Operation Gatekeeper – an effort to stop illegal immigration in Southern California – came about in 1994, the traffic shifted to the Arizona desert. Better walls and operations pushed illegal aliens east, and the need for the Missing Migrant Program followed. In the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which runs along the border with Mexico and into the vast ranch lands north of the border, the numbers spiked from about 350 Missing Migrant Program cases in fiscal year 2017 to nearly 2,800 in the following year, corresponding with the overall rise in illegal immigration in that area.
“People in trouble have to have a place where they can call, and someone will be able to respond and help. Border Patrol established access and procedures to help out,” said Tony Miranda, an assistant chief and Border Patrol’s manager for the Missing Migrant Program in Washington, D.C. The program covers the Southwest Border with Mexico. Miranda said helping is part of his agency’s code of ethics. “The Border Patrol doesn’t just have the responsibility of deterring and arresting illegal crossers; we also have the humanitarian side of our job, which is to rescue people in need.”
Miranda compared the illegal immigration – and the resulting need to save lost illegal aliens – to the weather. “You don’t know where it’s going to go. So the Border Patrol has to be flexible,” he said. “That’s why the program has become such a robust project in the South Texas area.”
He added because of that mercurial nature of illegal immigration, they are developing a standard program nationwide and giving the sectors flexibility in how they operate it.
“I’m not here to limit the capabilities of the program,” he said. “Rather, I’m here to give sectors guidance on how to operate, and then they have flexibility in deploying the program for their local needs,” adding it could even be used on the northern border.
Too often, the operation turns into the recovery of a body. Even at that, Miranda said it’s important to find that person so the family back home knows what happened.
“When we do find a deceased person with no identification on them, we basically have a John Doe (an unidentified body),” he said. “The same people working on this program work extremely closely with their local medical examiners to try and identify that person. The job doesn’t just end out in the desert. They’re involved in sending that person back to their loved ones.”
In addition, information gathered from those rescued and those recovered also helps Border Patrol track down and break up the criminal organizations who smuggled and then abandoned the illegal aliens in the middle of nowhere.
Miranda said when our agents talk to families back in Mexico and Central America, the families say who their loved ones contacted and who arranged the trek into the United States, and that person is the smuggler. “That information can then be forwarded to our enforcement side of the house,” Miranda said.
He emphasized why something as simple as a metal sign can make the difference between life and death.
“There are no street signs out in the desert, so we have to be able to try and locate that person as quickly as possible,” Miranda said.