How to ‘take death out of the equation’ – Arizona Daily Star

Fourth of four stories


The deadliest season for migrants in Southern Arizona is over for this year. 

It will start again in six months. 

Officials and aid volunteers have taken numerous steps to reduce the number of migrants who die in Southern Arizona. But these deaths continue to mount, and broader, more proactive steps are needed. 

Despite a broad consensus in favor of reducing those deaths and a wide array of well-intentioned efforts, rescues of migrants in distress are hampered by a lack of resources and leadership, poor record-keeping, difficulty in finding migrants in rough terrain in remote areas, and no clear rules for providing humanitarian aid, the Arizona Daily Star found after tracking migrant deaths and the responses to those deaths. 

“We need to take death out of the equation,” said Dan Abbott, a volunteer with the group Humane Borders, as he refilled a water station at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument earlier this year. 

The Star created the following series of recommendations for lawmakers and officials. They are based on clear patterns that emerge in data on migrant deaths, listening to lawmakers talk about those deaths, and speaking with migrants and people involved in responding to their distress. 

1. Pass legislation specifically aimed at preventing the deaths.  

Federal lawmakers and officials rarely address the large-scale deaths of migrants when it comes time to write legislation.

One step that likely would reduce migrant deaths would be federal legislation that shifts migration out of the desert and through ports of entry, such as a guest-worker program or visa reform. But that legislation may not be passed for many years, if ever. 

Federal lawmakers are considering legislation to provide legal status to millions of migrants already living in the United States. Those bills do not directly address migrant deaths or migrants who have not entered the United States yet, but they do provide some form of legal status that could allow migrants already in the United States to visit family and friends in their home country and then reenter the United States through a legal port of entry, rather than risk their lives in the desert. 

One such bill, the Farm Workforce Visa Modernization Act, would grant certified agricultural worker status to migrants who already work in the United States and allow them to legally cross the border. The bill passed the House in 2019 and was reintroduced this year.

Federal lawmakers should continue to try to pass legislation, as they have done since 2009, to direct Customs and Border Protection officials to study the relationship between border enforcement and migrant deaths.

Past legislative proposals included studying whether dangerous terrain contributes to migrant deaths, or even is an effective obstacle to illegal border crossings. That study could give lawmakers a better understanding of which types of legislation and resources are needed to reduce the number of deaths.

Lawmakers also should approve funds for hundreds, if not thousands, of rescue beacons along the border. Southern Arizona has about 34 rescue beacons in an area larger than several U.S. states combined.

The creation of an oversight panel made up of border residents and officials, as proposed by several lawmakers over the years, could shed more light on migrant deaths and foster a public conversation about how to reduce them. An ombudsman in the Border Patrol could create an official pathway for families to find lost loved ones and make complaints. 

In the meantime, Congress should act with urgency to lessen the number of migrants who die in Southern Arizona, with the overall goal to bring those deaths to zero. 

As the rising number of deaths shows, the officials who respond to migrants in distress need help. That help could come from the hundreds of volunteers in Southern Arizona who already have spent years trying to reduce migrant deaths. 

As it stands, the rules for providing humanitarian aid are unclear and subject to change at the whim of officials at the Border Patrol or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Lawmakers abdicated their responsibility to establish rules for providing aid, leading to the current situation where it is legal to drive a hiker in distress to a hospital, but illegal to do the same for a migrant. 

Congress could establish a framework for providing humanitarian aid appropriately and safely. The framework could establish protocols and training for volunteers, similar to the Sheriff’s Auxiliary in Pima County.

To fund those efforts, Congress could change the regulations on Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that funds overtime pay and equipment purchases by local law enforcement agencies that help with immigration enforcement, to allow some of those funds to be used for humanitarian efforts, in addition to law enforcement.

In July, Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee came up with a similar idea in a report on the Department of Homeland Security funding bill for 2022. 

Among other measures, such as finishing the border wall, they unsuccessfully offered an amendment to “increase funds for Operation Stonegarden to help law enforcement agencies in border communities work with Customs and Border Patrol to rescue and apprehend migrants abandoned by the cartels,” wrote Reps. Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas, and Chuck Fleischman, a Republican from Tennessee. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees Operation Stonegarden, already provided $2 million to Pima County to house and transport asylum-seeking families. County officials recently said those funds would be used to house asylum-seeking families at a local hotel if they were exposed to COVID-19. 

Also this year, CBP awarded a contract worth up to $110 million to build a large tentlike facility in Tucson to house unaccompanied migrant children. 

On a larger scale, CBP’s budget grew from $4 billion in 2003 to $15 billion this year. The Trump administration spent roughly $5 billion of Defense Department funds on 225 miles of border wall in Arizona in 2019 and 2020. The Obama administration spent more than $1 billion on a surveillance tower system in Southern Arizona that couldn’t detect illegal activity in the desert as it was designed to do and eventually was scrapped.

The money needed to save hundreds of lives every year in Southern Arizona likely would barely register in budgets that large.

2. Build on data findings of the Star and other analysts by designating a team of University of Arizona researchers to analyze trends that could help focus rescue efforts in the deadliest areas.

The available data makes clear that migrants are dying in large numbers in Southern Arizona. But the scope of the disaster remains hidden, and far more data is needed to find solutions. 

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department does not differentiate between rescues of migrants and rescues of hikers, stranded drivers and others. The Sheriff’s Department also does not retain 911 audio recordings for longer than six months, erasing a key public record of this humanitarian disaster.

The Border Patrol has made great strides in recent years when it comes to publishing data, but much more data is needed. The Star requested detailed data about migrant rescues, but Tucson Sector officials did not provide it.

CBP publishes monthly updates on the nationalities of migrants, whether they crossed as families, adults traveling alone, or children traveling alone, and the broad geographic area where they crossed the border.

CBP should do the same with rescues, migrant deaths, and the use of rescue beacons, some of which will be required next year by the Unidentified Remains and Missing Persons Act. 

For more detailed information that would be vital to reducing migrant deaths, but which Border Patrol officials consider confidential, such as GPS locations of encounters with migrants, Congress could direct the Border Patrol to share that data with a team of researchers at the University of Arizona, some of whom have developed deep expertise by studying migrant deaths and migration in Southern Arizona for more than 15 years. 

The UA researchers could agree to not release information in a manner that would compromise that confidentiality, just as officials and researchers collaborated to model the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The Department of Homeland Security designated the UA as a “center of excellence” a decade ago. UA researchers studied technology to detect deceptive answers from people at ports of entry; surveyed legal immigrants about their decision to migrate; modeled the effectiveness of Border Patrol checkpoints on highways, and other issues. 

The UA researchers could combine data from the Border Patrol with data from county officials and humanitarian groups, such as the use of water stations on migrant trails. That data could be used to make public policy recommendations on how to save lives, such as real-time mapping of the most ideal water-drop sites or where to target search-and-rescue efforts. 

Officials at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department could share GPS coordinates from 911 calls, which were included in the vast majority of calls reviewed by the Star. Border Patrol officials and sheriff’s departments could do the same with GPS coordinates from search-and-rescue efforts.

Incident reports from law enforcement agencies provide details on how officials responded to distress calls from migrants. Those reports could be sent to the UA team, where they could analyze trends in successful and unsuccessful responses. 

The Border Patrol could share GPS coordinates from encounters with migrants in the Tucson Sector to show trends in migration, which would allow researchers to build models to predict where rescue efforts are most needed.

As the UA team refines its methods, similar collaborations could begin elsewhere along the border, such as the University of California-San Diego or the University of Texas-El Paso.

3. Designate an official to be in charge of rescue efforts.

Responding to migrants in distress in the wilderness of Southern Arizona is a difficult task, especially when distress calls come from 20 jurisdictions spread out over 27,500 square miles.

Local officials with sheriff’s departments and the Border Patrol have developed a system to respond to migrants in distress, but as the rising number of deaths shows, that system is inadequate.

Incident reports from local law enforcement show deputies and 911 dispatchers forced to waste precious time trying to figure out which agency should respond or deciding whether to respond to calls for help that were passed from a migrant’s family member to a humanitarian aid group and then to officials.

Perhaps the most striking inadequacy in the local response to migrant deaths is the lack of leadership and accountability. Border Patrol agents respond to hundreds of distress calls every year, but they are not formally responsible for rescuing migrants and those calls are not their top priority.

The framework established by Congress could put an official in charge of these efforts to bring together local and federal agencies, as well as humanitarian groups and county officials.

Each spring, that official could lead meetings to discuss what agencies and aid groups expect to happen that summer and how they intend to deal with it. They could come up with a plan for the summer and update it as more information becomes available about upcoming weather in Southern Arizona and changes in migration patterns.

Each summer, that official could coordinate rescue efforts, smooth out jurisdictional confusion, work with local humanitarian groups, and make sure families know what happened to their loved ones. At the end of each summer, that official could lead meetings to review rescue efforts and evaluate new measures put in place that summer.

For example, the Border Patrol is putting placards in the desert that migrants can use as reference points when they call for help, modeled after efforts by the Border Patrol in south Texas. The placards include a number and a three-letter code for each of the nine Border Patrol stations in the Tucson Sector.

At summer’s end, the official could gather data about how often migrants referenced those signs when they called 911, which signs were referenced more than others, and whether fewer migrants died in areas with more signs.

The official could share that data with the UA research team. If the data showed those signs were effective, the Border Patrol or aid groups could install more signs in specific areas of the desert over the winter months.

With the knowledge that the summer will bring deadly conditions every year for migrants, the official response to those conditions should evolve each year.

4. Expand cellphone coverage in the desert west of Tucson.

When migrants started dying in large numbers two decades ago, cellphones were far less common than they are today. Now, many migrants carry cellphones as they walk through the desert. 

At the Border Patrol’s safety event in the summer, officials with the Border Patrol, Mexican Consulate, and Guatemalan Consulate urged migrants to call 911, but some migrants cross the border in areas without cell coverage or end up in mountainous areas where cell coverage is unreliable. 

The remains of 84 migrants were found in areas without cell coverage since June 2020. Over the last two decades, the remains of more than 500 migrants were found in those areas, the Star’s data analysis shows.

The largest area without cell coverage is in and around the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west of Ajo. More cell towers would help rescuers pinpoint locations of migrants in distress, as well as benefit rural communities. But few people live in that area, making it unlikely a cell company would invest in building cell towers. Instead, the federal government should pay for cell towers in those areas.

As the framework for humanitarian aid solidifies and the UA research team provides insight into search-and-rescue efforts, Congress could direct CBP officials to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, who run the Cabeza Prieta refuge, to expand cell coverage in that area. 

The officials would determine the cost of building cell towers on or near the refuge, as well as figure out where cellphone towers could be built with the greatest impact on migrant safety and the smallest impact on the environment.

Officials also could expand the FirstNet system, a program of the U.S. Commerce Department to expand public-safety broadband networks for first responders. Federal officials awarded a multibillion-dollar, 25-year contract to AT&T in 2017. When the network is complete, it will cover 76% of the geographic area of the United States.

When needed, the agencies that use the system can request deployable assets to provide temporary coverage, “such as in remote and wilderness areas that will not have permanent coverage,” according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Without taking these steps, or finding better solutions, migrants will continue to die in a predictable and preventable crisis. 

5. Congress should direct CBP to start processing more asylum seekers at ports of entry.

For the past decade, the Border Patrol has handled duties far removed from their core responsibilities of thwarting drug smuggling and illegal border crossings. 

Today, agents are overseeing a facility near the Tucson International Airport where unaccompanied migrant children are held. Because asylum-seeking families often turn themselves over to agents in the desert, agents also have to spend an inordinate amount of time processing them. 

Bagged bodies of migrants found in Southern Arizona are stored in a cooler at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The head of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, John Modlin, posted tweets in recent months calling attention to large groups of migrants, predominately children, who surrendered to agents on the Tohono O’odham Nation and near Sasabe. Agents must spend time transporting and processing those migrants, which takes away from their other duties.

At the same time, customs officers at ports of entry routinely turn away asylum seekers, despite ports of entry being a much safer and orderly place for asylum seekers to speak with officials.

The head of CBP’s Office of Field Operations in Arizona, Guadalupe Ramirez, told reporters in August that processing asylum seekers at ports of entry would disrupt trade and travel. In late September, a group of asylum seekers approached the port of entry in downtown Nogales to call for a return to asylum processing. Over the following few days, CBP officials placed large shipping containers in front of lanes at the port.

Rather than have asylum seekers risk their lives in the desert and force Border Patrol agents to spend time processing them, CBP officials should allow them to walk up to the port of entry in Nogales and make their asylum claims.

This could be done at the Morley Gate in downtown Nogales, a pedestrian-only port that closed during the pandemic. CBP officials could designate the Morley Gate for asylum seekers. As a site to quickly process asylum claims, officials could rent or buy one of the nearby stores. 

Difficult choices

Migrants who try to make it to Southern Arizona are faced with a variety of choices, none without risk.

They can wait for the Biden administration or Congress to change policies and allow them to ask for asylum. Families can travel to remote areas of the border and flag down Border Patrol agents and ask for asylum. They can give up on crossing the border and either stay in Nogales, Sonora, or return to their communities. They can try to cross the border undetected through the perilous desert and mountains. 

If they wait for a change in policy, they risk extortion, violence and grinding desperation in towns on the Mexico side of the border. If they travel to remote areas and flag down agents, they may end up back in Nogales, Sonora, after officials return them under Title 42, the pandemic-related public health order.

If they give up on crossing, they may face relentless poverty or debts to smugglers they can’t pay off without making dollars in the United States. Worse still, they may face mortal danger if they return to their communities, such as the mafia that threatened migrant Joel Mondragon’s family, or a machete attack that left one woman with long, twisted scars along her left arm. 

If they try to cross the border undetected, they put their lives on the line.

The choices migrants face in Mexico are mirrored on the U.S. side of the border by choices federal lawmakers, Border Patrol officials, and humanitarian aid volunteers face as they contend with the thousands of deaths and the extraordinary difficulty of rescuing migrants in the vast, harsh wilderness of Southern Arizona.

They can throw up their hands and say migrants broke the law when they crossed the border, and therefore their deaths are their own fault. They can embrace the moral obligation to make the best effort possible to reduce preventable deaths, regardless of citizenship.

While officials and lawmakers consider those choices, the death toll grows in Southern Arizona.

Those deaths, unfortunately, have become as predictable as the monsoon season, said Daniel Martinez, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona who has researched migrant deaths since the early 2000s.

“Next year, we’re probably also going to recover the remains of at least 150 to 200 people in our backyard,” Martinez said.

“This is not OK. This is not normal.”

Nearly 100 people walk along Sixth Avenue during a Dia de los Muertos procession to honor migrants who died in the desert crossing into the United States.

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