BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Ariz. – U.S. Border Patrol agent Jesus Vasavilbaso bounced his white SUV over dirt trails through remote terrain near the U.S.-Mexican border.
Gray clouds offered some respite from the searing summer heat. Brown shrubs and cacti stretched to the horizon. His radio was quiet. For the moment.
Vasavilbaso pulled over by a rescue tower and scoured the landscape looking for an increasingly common occurrence in this stretch of land: small groups of border crossers lost, disoriented and dehydrated in the desert sun.
He spotted four 1-gallon water jugs under a mesquite tree, probably left by humanitarian aid groups. The water serves as a reminder of the human lives gambled here daily. When agents find a body, they work closely with foreign consulates and officials to try to identify the dead, Vasavilbaso said.
"It is not our job, but we try to make it as humane as possible," he said. "It's the right thing to do."
Agents along the southwest border have encountered a staggering number of migrant deaths and carried out a record number of rescues of asylum seekers. Through the end of July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, counted 383 migrant deaths – on pace to break a record high of 492, set in 2005.
Through August, the Border Patrol rescued 11,406 people – far more than any previous year on record, according to agency statistics.
Even as the number of Border Patrol rescues soar, the agency's critics said it's not doing enough to prevent deaths – and may even be the source of them.
"It is their own policies that are leading to all these migrant deaths," said Jason De León, acting executive director at the Tucson-based Colibri Center for Human Rights, which helps identify and repatriate migrant remains. "The fact that they're now claiming to be doing all (these rescues), I find problematic."
Border Patrol migrant death statistics include only remains encountered by federal agents – more than double that number are reported annually by independent search-and-rescue groups and law enforcement agents.
Coroners, activists and officials agree that this year has been one of the deadliest on record for migrants, as more trekked across the border during the deadly summer months.
U.S. policies – such as the “remain in Mexico” rule and Title 42, which return most migrants to await their immigration hearings in Mexico or expel them immediately without due process – created logjams of migrants on the Mexican side of the border and may have led to riskier crossings, advocates and analysts said.
“We’ve never seen this many border crossing deaths in my entire career,” said Corinne Stern, the Webb County, Texas, medical examiner. Stern, a pathologist for more than two decades, receives migrant remains from 11 Texas border counties.
The previous highest number of migrant deaths analyzed by Stern and her staff was 172 in 2019. As of early September, they had seen 220.
“I don’t see any relief in sight any time soon,” she said.
This month, as thousands of Haitian refugees amassed, then were dispersed at a border crossing in Del Rio, Texas, advocates said they worry those migrants, too, may attempt riskier crossings farther west through difficult terrain to try to gain asylum.
"That’s going to happen," said Eddie Canales, head of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas, which tries to prevent migrant deaths and identify remains. "They're in a desperate situation. What alternative do they have?"
‘Our busiest year in 23 years’
This year, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in southern Arizona has seen more migrant remains through mid-September (171) than it did at the same point last year (155).
“My prediction is that 2021 will be our busiest year in 23 years,” said Gregory Hess, the medical examiner.
Pima County collects most of the migrant remains from across southern Arizona. Hess tries to identify and repatriate them back to their families, with help from foreign consulates.
“If somebody is missing, people don't stop thinking about it. They think they are still alive somewhere,” Hess said. “People need to know. If we can identify who somebody is, then at least we can give someone, potentially, some form of closure – even if it's not positive news."
To address the deluge of migrants trekking through the desert, Border Patrol officials said they ramped up initiatives such as the Missing Migrant Program, which aims to assist lost migrants and coordinates with local authorities to identify remains. Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue teams play a key role in migrant rescues, officials said.
The agency’s Tucson Sector, which patrols 262 miles of border, received more than 1,700 911 calls and rescued 233 migrants through August, acting sector chief Sabri Dikman said in an interview with USA TODAY. The sector installed 34 “rescue beacons” throughout its 90,000-square-foot area. If a button is pressed on the beacon, it transmits exact coordinates of the migrant in trouble.
A shift in smugglers’ tactics has also, incidentally, led to more rescues, he said. In years past, smugglers confiscated migrants’ cellphones to prevent them from alerting the Border Patrol to their location and led them personally through the desert. Over the past few years, smugglers began furnishing migrants with smartphones and guiding them through the treacherous terrain via WhatsApp messaging and GPS maps on the phones, Dikman said. As more cellphone towers sprouted, more migrants used the phones to call for help, he said.
“Ten years ago, no one had a phone in the desert, and there was very limited coverage out there,” Dikman said. “Now, every migrant has a phone with them.”
Advocates: Border Patrol policy leads to more deaths
Volunteer groups that search for missing migrants maintain that a Border Patrol policy that sealed off urban centers, such as El Paso and San Diego, and forced migrants into more remote terrain – a strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence” – contributes to the spike in deaths.
Those groups question the Border Patrol's stated commitment to rescuing as many migrants as possible. They suggested hundreds of 911 calls redirected to the Border Patrol from county call centers and volunteer groups often don’t result in rescue missions, leaving thousands of stranded migrants.
A report in February co-written by the nonprofit No More Deaths titled “Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance” claimed the Border Patrol didn’t deploy any searches for 63% of 911 calls patched in through an advocate group’s hotline from 2015 to 2016.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn't reply to a request for comment on the report.
Since the policy of steering migrants away from urban centers emerged in the mid-1990s, migrant deaths in southern Arizona soared from eight in 1995 to 209 in 2020, even as border encounters generally declined, according to a report released in April by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute.
“We talk about search-and-rescue, but no one talks about why these people are in the desert in the first place,” De León of Colibri Center said.
Dikman, the Tucson sector chief, acknowledged that Border Patrol strategy shifted from urban centers to more remote areas. But he said smugglers and cartels – not federal officials – are to blame for leading migrants into desert regions.
Rescued migrants often tell Border Patrol agents that their smugglers told them the walk across the desert was much shorter than it actually was, he said.
“That crisis isn't created by Border Patrol policy,” he said. “That crisis is created by the smuggling cartels – 100%. They're the ones who choose where they're going to cross people.”
Spotting trouble from the sky
Inside the Arizona Air Coordination Center at the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, several large flat-screen TVs blinked with blue squares and green dots representing agent activity and emergency operations.
Air and Marine Operations, a division of CBP, teams up with the Border Patrol to provide air support on missions and, increasingly, assist in migrant rescues. Joint coordination of air operations between the two divisions began in March, marking a breakthrough in missions and rescues, said Mark McComack, the center’s acting director.
Emergency phone calls stream in from county call centers, and the dozen or so workers in the coordination center triage the calls: Is there enough information to deploy a rescue mission? How dire is the caller’s situation? Calls are ranked by the severity of the emergency, the precision of the location and the caller's medical condition, McComack said. Helicopters team up with Border Patrol units on the ground to spot migrants trying to sneak into the USA or those in trouble.
“Out in the remote areas of the southwest border, we are the largest law enforcement entity around,” he said. “We get requested for assistance all the time.”
About 1,100 feet over Tucson, Douglas Murray circled in his A-Star helicopter as a call crackled on his radio: Border Patrol agents near the town of Sasabe were chasing seven migrants. Murray jotted down coordinates on a pad he kept strapped to his thigh, then banked the chopper south.
Much of his day consists of combing over the mountains and rocky terrain of southern Arizona to help agents detect and collar undocumented migrants slipping into the USA. When they find someone in distress or receive an emergency call, their mission shifts to rescue, said Murray, an air interdiction supervisory agent with Air and Marine Operations.
This month, another A-Star pilot answered a call from a Border Patrol agent on the ground to provide support in tracking a group. After an hourlong search, they found a group of six migrants huddled under a tree, along with a woman lying face down and unconscious, Murray said. The pilot landed and flew her to a hospital 10 minutes away in Sells, Arizona.
Shortly after arriving, the woman died. She was not quite 30 years old, he said.
“My pilot was distraught over that,” Murray said.
Clues to identity: Tattoos, dental records and hidden phone numbers
Besides trying to rescue migrants, Border Patrol officials said they are expanding efforts to help identify migrant remains. Through the Missing Migrant Program, agents coordinate with medical examiners, consulates and other officials to help identify remains and contact family members.
Two walk-in coolers and two outdoor trailers at the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office in Laredo have been busy with the comings and goings of black body bags holding migrant remains.
The coolers and trailers are designed to hold 200 bodies. As of early September, they held 150 mostly migrant bodies. Each day, more are wheeled in; others depart as they're identified.
Tattoos and dental records help to identify bodies, Stern, the medical examiner, said. Migrants also stash scraps of paper with relatives’ phone numbers on them, well hidden so smugglers won’t find them and extort money from family members, she said. Stern has found the numbers sewn into bras or the inside of belts. Last month, one man had tucked the number into a small plastic baggie and hid it under his scrotum.
All the information goes into an electronic database Stern keeps of missing and dead migrants. The Border Patrol has helped immensely by running fingerprint samples through its massive database and locating family members of the deceased, she said. Stern calls the families herself and alerts them that their country’s consulate in the USA will soon contact them to arrange the return of remains.
“That’s the worst feeling you have – not knowing,” Stern said. “Your son’s missing, and you don’t know if he’s alive or dead. That’s why I work so hard to get these individuals identified and repatriated. Sometimes I lie awake at night thinking, ‘Did we do everything we could?’”
A more recent phenomenon, Stern said: More migrants attempt to cross farther west in Texas, where desert heat and mountainous terrain could spell quick trouble.
Historically, few migrants braved crossing through the Border Patrol's Big Bend Sector in West Texas, an area dotted with steep canyons baked in the Chihuahuan Desert. Through July this fiscal year, agents in that sector recorded 32 deaths – more than double the number for all of last year and 10 times the total for 2019.
Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who has led efforts to identify migrant remains, said she hears from coroners and other officials about a steep rise in migrants dying, especially in West Texas.
She received a distressed call from an official in Val Verde County asking if she could get more body bags: The county's morgue, already filled with COVID-19 victims, was overflowing with recovered migrant bodies.
“This really is a disaster of epic proportions," Baker said. "I’ve never seen it this high.”
Illegal crossings 'not deserving of a death penalty'
Though officials praise the Border Patrol's increased involvement in reporting remains, some volunteer groups and nongovernment organizations said the Border Patrol is not always a reliable partner in rescuing migrants or recovering remains.
The agency has pressed charges against more than a dozen No More Deaths volunteers since 2005 and repeatedly raided the organization’s humanitarian aid camp near Arivaca, Arizona, according to the group.
Volunteers reported that more than 3,500 gallons of water were vandalized in southern Arizona from 2012 to 2015, which may have led to more deaths, and alleged Border Patrol agents were responsible.
“Our mission is to reduce death and suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Alicia Dinsmore, a longtime No More Deaths volunteer and co-author of the report in February. “U.S. Border Patrol policies have intentionally pushed people into situations where they are in need of rescue and in need of humanitarian intervention.”
César Ortigoza, president of Armadillos Ni Un Migrante Menos, a search-and-rescue group that looks for migrants in Arizona and California, said it's received about 10 calls a day this year about vanished migrants – more than double that of previous years.
The group of about 20 volunteers heads out about every 15 days, he said, collaborating with other groups, such as No More Deaths, to cover as much terrain as possible. Independent volunteers look for stranded migrants or their remains out of a sense of community, unlike Border Patrol agents, who do it as part of their job, he said.
“They try to find the living, but they don’t care about the deceased,” Ortigoza said.
Dikman, the Border Patrol Tucson Sector chief, said 224 of the sector’s 3,500 agents are trained as emergency management technicians and 53 are on the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue team, uniquely trained to help migrants languishing in the desert.
He plans to continue deploying agents across the sector’s vast landscape of mountains and desert to help migrants in trouble, he said.
Though they may be breaking the law by crossing into the USA without permission, migrants deserve to stay safe, he said.
“Illegal entry is a petty misdemeanor,” Dikman said. “And that’s certainly nothing that would be deserving of a death penalty.”
Follow Migoya and Jervis on Twitter: @ClaraMigoya, @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Border Patrol is also trying to help identify more migrant remains