With the Summer Heating Up, CBP Augments Program to Save Migrants in Distress

When 911 alone just won't do

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 9, 2020

  • CBP's Missing Migrant Program (MMP) assists migrants (and others) who are in distress near and along the Southwest border.
  • MMP uses various tools to locate migrants in distress, including markers containing identifying information to assist 911 dispatchers, and beacons that send out a signal guiding agents to the coordinates where those migrants can be found.
  • Border Patrol BORSTAR agents are specially trained in search and rescue and emergency medical care, as well as "tactical combat casualty care", the latter reflecting the dangers agents face along the border.
  • MMP also assists county medical examiner offices, forensic pathologists, and foreign consulates in the identification and family reunification of deceased migrants.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recently announced an expansion of an initiative to save migrants lost after entering illegally in the Rio Grande Valley. While just a snapshot, with the weather heating up, that initiative shows the lengths that the agency will go to rescue aliens in distress.

Before I get into the details, the initiative is a part of the Missing Migrant Program (MMP). Its purpose is to assist migrants who have become lost and fall into distress after entering the United States illegally. MMP began as a pilot program within the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol in June 2015, and was expanded to South Texas in 2016 and then to Yuma and El Paso sectors in late 2017, before its implementation along the whole Southwest border.

Border Patrol agents have two seemingly conflicting but actually complementary missions as relates to migrants who have entered illegally: to locate and apprehend those who do not want to be found, and to rescue those who do. There are several cities on the American side of the Southwest border, but they have a heavy Border Patrol (and in many instances, National Guard) presence. For that reason, migrants and their smugglers often choose a different path: through the vast stretches of farm fields, desert, and wasteland between those cities.

Some of those aliens are transported to "stash houses" (where migrants are often held against their will to force their families to pay smuggling fees) for ostensible transport into the interior, but others are left to fend for themselves in that wilderness.

How bad can conditions get along the border? The today's high in Yuma, Ariz., for instance, is expected to reach 101°F.

Focusing just on the Rio Grande Valley, however, Sciencing explains: "The eastern portion of Texas, which comprises about a third of the state, has a subtropical humid climate, experiencing warm summers." That is one way to describe it. At Rio Grande Valley International Airport, "The hot season lasts for 3.8 months, from May 23 to September 17, with an average daily high temperature above 91°F. The hottest day of the year is August 4, with an average high of 96°F and low of 76°F."

A review of CBP data shows that those are generally the months in which the agency makes a significant number of its apprehensions, and last year, the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the Border Patrol was responsible for the largest number of apprehensions of migrants in all three of the categories into which CBP divides migrants: unaccompanied alien children (UAC); family units (FMUs); and single adults.

Given the fact that in two of those three categories (UACs and FMUs), more aliens entered from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (respectively) than from Mexico, and the fact that single adults from those three countries combined (114,488) were more than three-quarters as large as the number of single adults entering from Mexico (149,967), entry through the Rio Grande Valley makes sense, because it is closer to Central America than any other portion of the border.

The climate and the migrant flow place a special burden on the Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector to find migrants in distress, especially in the summer. It is hot, potable water is scarce, and there are significant stretches of ranchland, wildlife refuges, and brush. As Border Patrol notes: "It's a journey the smugglers tell [migrants] might only take a few hours or a day but can stretch into several days in the relentless heat."

Finding those migrants, including those in distress, poses a challenge to the agency. We live in a technological age, when even aliens entering illegally have access to cellular technology, but often simply calling 911 does little good:

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.

Think about your own experience in a strange place, where you do not recognize any landmarks — how difficult is it to find your way, or connect with another person? Anyone who has been in south Texas knows that even the landmarks that exist all seem more or less the same: fence lines, trees, hills, perhaps an outbuilding. If you are a newcomer finding your way in that environment, how would you tell anyone where you are?

That is why Border Patrol attempts to get migrants in distress to what it calls "Phase 2", where agents can narrow down their search from a few miles to a few hundred feet. Although you may not be aware of it, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now requires wireless carriers to deploy what it calls "Enhanced 911" (E911). The purpose of E911 is "to improve the effectiveness and reliability of wireless 911 services by providing 911 dispatchers with additional information on wireless 911 calls."

E911 has two parts — with the similar nomenclature of "Phase I" and "Phase II":

Under Phase I, the FCC requires carriers, within six months of a valid request by a local Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), to provide the PSAP with the telephone number of the originator of a wireless 911 call and the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call.

Under Phase II, the FCC requires wireless carriers, within six months of a valid request by a PSAP, to begin providing information that is more precise to PSAPs, specifically, the latitude and longitude of the caller. This information must meet FCC accuracy standards, generally to within 50 to 300 meters, depending on the type of technology used. The deployment of E911 requires the development of new technologies and upgrades to local 911 PSAPs, as well as coordination among public safety agencies, wireless carriers, technology vendors, equipment manufacturers, and local wireline carriers.

As currently deployed, however, E911 (as good a process as it is) alone lacks the capability to allow Border Patrol to rapidly respond to a small enough search area to allow its agents to locate migrants in distress.

To bolster this effort, CBP, through the MMP and in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has deployed 350 markers in National Wildlife Refuges located within the Rio Grande Valley:

Those signs bear simple and easy-to-understand instructions to call 911 and give the sign's unique number to the emergency dispatcher. The emergency call centers have a precise GPS location that corresponds with the sign number, allowing for far quicker responses by rescuers.

Not all aliens get lost in National Wildlife Refuges, however, so CBP is in the process of expanding that effort to install a total of 1,200 signs in south Texas. Those signs will be located on "high-visibility landmarks" where Border Patrol knows from experience (boosted by scientific data) migrants are apt to go, so as to make it more likely those migrants will be able to locate one.

MMP also uses beacons along known smuggling routes to assist those aliens who do not have a cell phone or reception:

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 th[e] South Texas area, Mandarin Chinese, lost immigrants can activate a radio signal that notifies Border Patrol dispatchers of that particular tower.

Those beacons can be relocated as smuggling patterns change, and in just Arizona alone, more than 1,100 migrants have been rescued thanks to them since they were first deployed. They are not cheap, costing $3,000 a piece to construct, and $200 a year to maintain.

As an aside, one individual rescued last week by Border Patrol agents in the Yuma sector, who indicated he was dehydrated after two days in the desert, was a 31-year-old local man who was facing domestic violence charges. Not all those who are saved are migrants, and not all are "innocent" victims of rapacious smugglers.

Border Patrol has deployed a specialized component to aid those lost and in distress. The Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) Unit, which was launched in 1998, "provides specialized law enforcement, search and rescue response from conventional to high-risk Border Patrol Operations." It operates at both the southern and northern borders, as well as along the coast and in the interior, from strategic locations. CBP explains:

BORSTAR is comprised of experienced Border Patrol agents selected from all U.S. Border Patrol sectors to attend and successfully complete the BORSTAR Selection and Training Course (STC).

The BORSTAR STC is a physically and mentally demanding course in which candidates are evaluated in various search and rescue techniques, tactical medicine, technical rescue, land navigation, communication, swift-water rescue, air operations, and the ability to work in a cohesive unit.

Once agents complete the BORSTAR course, they receive additional training, including in emergency medicine and paramedic skills, as well as "tactical combat casualty care", giving some insight into the hazards Border Patrol faces on a daily basis.

Not all migrants can be saved, despite CBP's best efforts: "MMP also assists county medical examiner offices, forensic pathologists, and foreign consulates in the identification and family reunification of deceased migrants. Information obtained from this multi-agency and multi-national effort provides closure to families and helps to shape CBP operations."

To give some idea of the scope of this recovery effort, in Pima County, Ariz., alone, more than 900 dead migrants have gone unidentified in the last 15 years. There were 283 Southwest border deaths in FY 2018, down from 454 in FY 2006, a decline likely reflective of the effectiveness of MPP and other CBP initiatives. Some 96 of those deaths were in the Rio Grande Valley sector (down from 156 in FY 2013).

Even with the huge influx of migrants in FY 2019 (851,508, an almost 115 percent increase over the year before), the total number of deaths on the American side of the border last fiscal year only increased to 300 (falling to 69 in the Rio Grande Valley). That is still too many lives lost, but those deaths occurred despite Border Patrol's best efforts (and the fact that CBP resources were stretched almost to the breaking point last year).

As long as Congress dithers and stalls on closing the loopholes that encourage aliens to enter the United States illegally, programs like MMP will be necessary. CBP should be applauded for its efforts, and the agents who must risk their lives to save those who — at least at first — sought to evade them should be recognized.