For migrants in Arizona who call 911, it’s Border Patrol on the line

Critics say system of transferring emergency calls to border agents may contribute to needless deaths

Tire tracks of what are believed to be smugglers in the Sonoran Desert in 2010 in the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona. Today along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, fewer migrants are crossing the border, and fewer are dying. But those who cross face more dangerous conditions and are more likely to perish during their journey.
John Moore / Getty Images

TUCSON, Ariz. — Ely Ortiz, 42, spends many of his weekends combing Arizona’s sprawling deserts on foot, searching for people whom 911 rescue workers didn’t, or won’t, look for: lost and distressed undocumented migrants making the perilous journey from Mexico into the United States.

The issue is personal for him. In May 2010, Ortiz’s brother and cousin ran out of water and fell ill while crossing the desert. They were hoping to return to their families and jobs after being deported six months earlier from the U.S. to Mexico. After smugglers and other migrants traveling with the pair continued without them, Ortiz’s brother, Rigoberto Ortiz, called 911. He was transferred to a Border Patrol search-and-rescue agent, who flew a helicopter to look for the two men.

But hours later, after losing cell-phone contact with Rigoberto, the Border Patrol agent turned the helicopter around and ceased looking for the lost party, according to another migrant, who’d turned himself in to Border Patrol and then accompanied the agent on the flight. Agents took the helicopter out two more times in subsequent days, they later told Ortiz, but never searched the area on foot.

“I think my brother was still alive,” Ortiz said. “They could have sent people to look on foot. I think if they would have looked, they would have found him alive.”

Months later, after finally getting permission from government authorities to visit the site where he suspected his family members had gone missing (the land was part of an active bombing range), Ortiz conducted his own search and found their remains. His brother and cousin had died from dehydration near where the helicopter had flown.

Cristen Vernon, left, an employee with Derechos Humanos, and Genevieve Schroeder, a volunteer with No More Deaths, for a possible missing person in Arizona’s Coffeepot Well area.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

When most people dial 911 due to a medical emergency, they don’t expect to talk to Border Patrol. But that’s exactly what happens to many undocumented migrants who call for help from Arizona’s southern desert.

In the early 2000s, as enforcement along the border tightened, emergency calls from migrants crossing through dangerous terrain began to overwhelm the 911 system in counties near the Mexico border. In 2007, Arizona’s Pima County began transferring its 911 calls from migrants in the desert directly to the cell phone of Border Patrol’s search-and-rescue unit, BORSTAR, instead of handling them in-house or transferring them to the county rescue services that would respond to distress calls made by anyone else who was lost in the wilderness. Other Arizona counties followed, and some counties in Texas and Washington state do the same. (Border Patrol has the authority to police areas within 100 miles of national borders).

When 911 calls come in to BORSTAR, supervising agent John Redd said, quite often callers in distress don’t realize they have been transferred to Border Patrol. And the agency doesn’t inform them, according to Redd: “[W]e don’t tell them it’s the Border Patrol, because we’re trying to preserve life. But the fact is we’ve got another job to do, too. If we do tell them it’s Border Patrol, when we get there, they’re going to be gone.” If agents manage to find migrants in distress, they stabilize them medically and then book them, Redd said.

Advocates for migrants say this system prioritizes the apprehension and deportation of migrants and leads to needless deaths. Calls from migrants in distress sometimes bounce from one agency to another, with no mechanism to ensure accountability or track how cases are handled. Determining whether a caller is an undocumented immigrant is at the discretion of the 911 dispatcher who picks up the phone call and is often based on racial profiling, said Cristen Vernon, the missing-migrant project coordinator with Derechos Humanos, an immigration advocacy group in Tucson. She regularly receives reports from family members of migrants missing in the desert. “How likely would it be that Border Patrol would be called on a person who spoke fluent English and said they had gotten lost while hiking?” she said.

In addition, say advocates, Border Patrol has little incentive to conduct lengthy searches for people who may be deceased, leaving bodies to rot and, sometimes, to be recovered by nonprofit and volunteer groups that have popped up in recent years for this purpose.

‘The system is set up to arrest people who are findable, not to look for people who are lost.’

Genevieve Schroeder

volunteer, No More Deaths

Personal items at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in 2014 in Tucson, Arizona.
John Moore / Getty Images

Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol, says its top priorities are “to keep terrorists and their weapons from entering the U.S.” and enforce US laws — not conduct search-and-rescue missions for distressed migrants. Still, Redd said, he does what he can to help. Over the years, he has sent out agents and dogs to follow up on reports from Derechos Humanos, he said, and look for the remains of migrants who perished in the desert.

Since mid-February, in part because the number of calls has dropped as more migrants are making the journey through Texas instead of Arizona, 911 calls from people believed to be undocumented migrants are now being dispatched to a Customs and Border Patrol command center in the state, the Joint Field Command, which is stationed at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. But many advocates say this shift doesn’t remedy the central problem — that searches and rescues are a low priority for Border Patrol.

“The system is set up to arrest people who are findable, not to look for people who are lost,” said Genevieve Schroeder, a volunteer with Derechos Humanos who also leads search-and-rescue recovery missions for lost migrants with the humanitarian group No More Deaths.

‘A lot of what we do is enforcement. The rescue part is secondary, not the main objective.’

John Redd


Today along the Arizona-Mexico border, fewer migrants are crossing the border and fewer are dying. But those who do cross face more dangerous conditions and are more likely to perish during their journey. According to Customs and Border Patrol, in 2005, 219 migrants died in the 90,000-square-mile area of the Arizona border known by agents as the Tucson sector, while 439,079 were apprehended; last year, 107 died and 87,915 were apprehended.

“Increased border militarization and strategically placed Border Patrol checkpoints force migrants to travel farther and through dangerous, mountainous and remote areas that lack any sources of water,” said Schroeder. “Crossing is completely different now than it was 10 years ago. People don’t realize how far they have to walk now — two days more than before, sometimes. There’s no way to carry as much water as you need.”

Those who cross are often desperate and ill-prepared, forced to pay guides from drug cartels that have established a monopoly over the border-crossing business — or to carry the drugs themselves in lieu of payment. It’s common for guides to leave behind migrants who fall ill.

Until recently, those conditions prompted more and more migrants to call 911 from their cell phones to request rescue or medical assistance. While it’s difficult to say how many people in distress have been calling, BORSTAR officers who oversee the Tucson section of the border — which encompasses 262 of the 370 miles — say that they rescued some 400 people per year in 2011 and 2012, whose calls were relayed to their cell phone by emergency dispatchers, though that number plummeted last year to 138. (Dispatchers from 911 say the numbers are much higher; the sheriff's department in Ajo, Arizona, said it transferred 681 calls to BORSTAR last year alone).

First, sheriffs' departments receive the calls. Then, in Pima and Santa Cruz counties, they are transferred to a cell phone that is shared by some eight BORSTAR search-and-rescue agents, who are out in the field on a typical day.

According to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, some 70 percent of calls they forward to BORSTAR don’t go through.

If the calls do connect but BORSTAR agents miss them — which Redd said is “not uncommon” — the officers have to contact the 911 dispatcher. And even in cases where the 911 dispatcher and the agent do connect, agents are sometimes unable to begin a search because the caller didn’t provide specific information on his or her location and the call cannot be tracked via cell-phone-towers. In Arizona’s desert, where cell phone service is spotty, that’s often the case, said Redd.

“It doesn’t make any sense the way they’re set up,” said Schroeder, who regularly calls Redd to ask him to conduct searches for migrants that No More Deaths is looking for. “Agents told me they will only search for people with exact coordinates. This is not how a case would be handled for someone with documentation status, or a college kid.”

Redd said that once migrants call to turn themselves in, it rarely takes longer than an hour for an agent to find them. But that’s only if the migrant is near a main road or can be easily spotted from the sky. In cases where a person is lost in a remote area with no specific coordinates — what’s known as a phase 1 call — BORSTAR might deploy a helicopter, Redd said. He also said he often tells callers to hang up and call back; on a second and third try, sometimes the call will hit cell-phone towers in the region at the same time and pinpoint the individual’s location (a Phase 2 call).

Redd said the agency is not equipped to do more. “You have to keep in mind that at any one time there’s like eight of us BORSTAR guys out and working,” he said. “A lot of what we do is enforcement. The rescue part is secondary, not the main objective.” 

‘It traumatized me – those images, thinking of those calls. I couldn’t sleep.’

Ely Ortiz

Aguilas del Desierto

Genevieve Schroeder looks at a map of the Coffeepot Well area before heading out from Ajo, Arizona.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

On Friday afternoons about twice a month, Ortiz packs some food and camping gear, then makes the 10-hour drive from his home near San Diego to some of the most remote areas of the Sonoran desert in Arizona. He’s accompanied by about a dozen men — other Latino immigrants, many of whom work full-time as gardeners, ranch hands or truck drivers. They call themselves Aguilas del Desierto, or Eagles of the Desert. Many members of the two-year-old group gained experience doing search-and-rescues for a similar organization, Angeles del Desierto, which formed in San Diego a decade ago.

“We all go in a line, walking,” said Ortiz, who spends his weekdays maintaining the grounds of ranches near San Diego. “We separate ourselves 50 meters. Our rule is we have to be looking at the people next to us. We keep a radio and communicate with each other in groups of four. Each group has a GPS device.”

This summer will mark the fifth anniversary of when, on a similar expedition, he found the bodies of his deceased brother and cousin.

Back in May 2010, six days after BORSTAR’s initial search for Rigoberto and Carmelo Ortiz, Ely Ortiz received a phone call from a man who had been walking with the larger group of migrants that left the two behind. After he rode in the helicopter with the BORSTAR agents, the man was deported to the Mexican city of Oaxaca. He told Ortiz that his brother and cousin were probably dead. (A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said the agency could not confirm Ortiz’s account but that three helicopter searches would constitute a “significant” expenditure of resources).

Ortiz, stricken with grief, went to Arizona and, with the help of volunteers from Aguilas del Desierto, secured permission to search the area where his brother and cousin were believed to have died. That land is part of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, an active bombing site in the southwest part of the state. By the time he got the go-ahead, it was July. In September, on his third search, Ortiz found his brother’s and cousin’s remains.

“The bodies were practically skeletons,” Ortiz recalled. “We recognized them because of the clothes they were wearing. My cousin had two metal teeth. [The two men] were dry; they smelled really bad. It traumatized me — those images, thinking of those calls. I couldn’t sleep.”

‘I’ve seen [Cochise County’s] search-and-rescue crew responding to active searches while Border Patrol in that area completely ignored the reports.’

Genevieve Schroeder

Not every county in Arizona forwards distress calls from undocumented migrants to Border Patrol. Cochise County, southeast of Tucson, handles all of its 911 calls, regardless of whom they come from. Some migrant advocates and county officials say this system seems more effective because the volume of calls received by each sheriff’s department is lower and individual cases get more personalized attention.

Carol Capas, a spokesperson for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, said that in one case three years ago, in a deviation of policy, a 911 dispatcher transferred a call from a migrant lost in the desert directly to BORSTAR. The team did speak to the man, who had an injured leg, said Capas, but no one found the migrant and the man kept calling. After four days, another dispatcher transferred the migrant’s call to the county sheriff’s department, which sent out a search-and-rescue team and located him.

Said Schroeder of Cochise County: “I’ve seen their search-and-rescue crew responding to active searches while Border Patrol in that area completely ignored the reports.”

If a migrant is likely dead, there is even less reason for BORSTAR to search for that individual. No More Deaths typically learns about migrants only weeks or months after they go missing, through phone calls from their relatives. Schroeder said that BORSTAR has declined to search for any of the 13 cases her group has called the agency about over the last nine months.

She acknowledged that it is “extraordinarily rare” for No More Deaths to find specific individuals, either dead or alive. Out of roughly 25 searches that she has participated in over six years, only twice has she located the person or people she initially sought.

Migrant advocates also say their work is complicated by confusion around who has been detained. Schroeder often spends days in the desert looking for one person, only to find out later that even though the individual could not be found in Border Patrol’s arrest records or Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s database, that migrant had been detained and deported long before she began her search. (Before Schroeder initiates a search at the request of migrants' families, she calls hospitals, police departments and park rangers and asks federal immigration agencies to look up the names of missing migrants in arrest and immigration databases.)

Those agencies’ records are too often incomplete, out-of-date, or data is misentered, said Kathyrn Rodriguez, who formerly worked with Derechos Humanos and is now with the Colibri Center for Human Rights, in Tucson, helping the Pima County coroner identify deceased migrants. “Consulates don’t seem to get updated lists of detained migrants, and people arrested here get moved around as far as Sacramento, even the Midwest, before getting deported to Tijuana. It’s not logical.”

Redd said that the computer system used to locate those who’ve been apprehended is difficult to use and information sharing between the sheriffs departments, BORSTAR and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and other federal immigration agencies can be slow and incomplete. “There are different levels of experience working that system,” he said. “We don’t use the system daily.”

‘We told him, ‘You’re four days away from the closest town.’ He said, ‘OK, never mind.’ If we hadn’t rescued them that same day, they would have died.’

Ely Ortiz

Meanwhile, despite the dangers, migrants continue crossing. On their desert search-and-recovery missions, members of Aguilas del Desierto regularly run across people, like 10 parched migrants who were in “really bad shape,” Ortiz recalled from one trip last summer. Many of the travelers had been walking for more than a week. A few were ready to turn themselves in and be deported. One person wanted to keep going.

“We told him, ‘You’re four days away from the closest town,’” Ortiz said. “He said, ‘OK, never mind.’ If we hadn’t rescued them that same day, they would have died. We gave them water, food.” Ortiz then called Border Patrol so that the migrants could turn themselves in.

He has gone through psychiatric treatment to overcome the recurring nightmares about that day in the desert he found his brother and cousin. “I became a volunteer because it is really helpful,” he said. “I can identify with the people who need help. I put myself in their situation. I remember the suffering and desperation.”

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