And they were designed to.
Agents routinely ignore emergency search and rescue calls and push people into harsh terrain as part of a “deterrence” policy, reports say.
Each year, untold numbers of migrants disappear in the borderlands after being pushed into dangerous and remote terrain by Border Patrol, the same agency that is then tasked with responding to migrants’ search and rescue emergencies. A new report released Wednesday found that the federal agency does not respond to 40% of these emergency calls. In a series of reports published over the course of five years, the southern Arizona organizations No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos have cataloged and reported the specific Border Patrol policies and tactics that have fueled a crisis of death and disappearance in the borderlands. The first report, released in 2016, detailed the 1994 Border Patrol policy “Prevention Through Deterrence” in which the United States militarized urban border areas in an effort to steer migrants away from ports of entry and into geographically harsher and more remote and hazardous regions, leading to their deaths. The second report, published in 2018, detailed Border Patrol’s practice of destroying life-saving humanitarian aid left by volunteers for migrants.
Part three in the series published Wednesday—Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance—details how when 911 response systems receive calls from people crossing into the United States without authorization, they transfer those calls away from local emergency services and to Border Patrol, an agency that for decades has failed to provide life-saving assistance to undocumented immigrants who are lost and dying.
Undocumented and in distress
The report outlines dozens of incidents in which migrants en route to the U.S. were left to die by Border Patrol. In one case, a man named Jaime contacted 911 11 times over the course of 10 hours. He was lost and alone in southwestern Arizona. As the hours passed, his condition deteriorated and his voice faded. His location was traced, but each time he called 911 he was transferred to Border Patrol, so he stopped calling. It’s unknown what happened to Jaime. A woman named Flora was last seen severely dehydrated and losing consciousness in South Texas. Despite pressure from consulate officials, it was not until 14 days after Flora was last seen that Border Patrol conducted an interview with an eyewitness. Flora was never found. In another case, Narciso and his son were last seen in the remote Arizona desert. Narciso was unable to walk, so his son went in search of assistance and was encountered and apprehended by Border Patrol. Despite the fact that his son reported his father’s emergency to arresting agents, Narciso was never found. In 2019, the New York Times published an interactive feature that included a few of the hundreds of calls that Border Patrol has ignored over the years.
After the implementation of Prevention Through Deterrence, Border Patrol launched the Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue Unit (BORSTAR) in 1998 to address the rising death toll resulting from its enforcement policy. The unit, which accounts for an infinitesimal portion of Border Patrol’s budget, is supposed to respond to emergency situations in the borderlands. However according to the report, “BORSTAR is a relatively minuscule initiative with little to no capacity to respond to the massive search and rescue crisis in the borderlands.” Less than 6% of Border Patrol agents have certified medical training, and less than 1% are trained in search and rescue techniques. Still, in 2007 surrounding counties began forwarding emergency 911 calls to Border Patrol from people perceived to be undocumented and in distress. Up until 2015, these calls were transferred to a single cell phone carried by a BORSTAR agent.
“This ‘emergency’ cell phone was frequently out of service, out of battery, and at times, turned completely off over the weekend or overnight. For years, untold numbers of calls from people in dire need went unanswered,” No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos reported. Pima County, Arizona, estimates that 70% of the 911 calls from this period were dropped upon transfer to Border Patrol.
The report’s findings are based on data collected in 2015-2016 by the Derechos Humanos Missing Migrant Crisis Line, a community advocacy initiative created to assist family members searching for their loved ones. In 63% of all distress calls referred to Border Patrol by crisis line volunteers, the agency did not conduct any confirmed search or rescue mobilization whatsoever—this includes 40% of cases where Border Patrol directly refused to take any measures in response to a life-or-death emergency.
Border Patrol was also found to be more than twice as likely to take part in directly causing a person to go missing through deadly enforcement tactics than they are to participate in locating a distressed person. As a regular part of daily enforcement operations, Border Patrol agents chase groups of people who are migrating together. Sometimes these chases are on foot, other times Border Patrol utilizes helicopters, ATVs, horses, and dogs, causing people to run in different directions “leaving people disoriented, exhausted, sometimes injured, and separated from their traveling companions,” according to the report. Many of the emergency cases received by the Derechos Humanos Crisis Line are people who have gone missing as a direct result of a Border Patrol chase.
Families take matters into their own hands
Hannah Taleb, one of the report’s authors, told Prism that it’s unhelpful to talk about disappearances “in a vacuum.”
“What is happening has been intentional in every way,” Taleb said. “The findings of our report talk about Border Patrol’s enforcement and non-response [to people in distress], but we really hope that people focus on the lengths that families have gone to in order to find their loved ones.”
When people migrate on foot to the United States, their cellphones become their life lines. When they are in distress, one of their final acts before they disappear is using the last of their cellphone battery to call their family and share information about their surroundings and their health. In at least 26% of emergency cases, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos found that a family member received a distress call from their loved one or from an eyewitness.
When these loved ones go missing, families contact Border Patrol for help, only to experience inaction, negligence, and hostility. Left with no other options—as phone calls to 911 and police are transferred to Border Patrol—families overwhelmingly turn to the Missing Migrant Line and other humanitarian organizations that perform searches in the borderlands. But these groups also face obstruction from Border Patrol, including the agency’s practice of criminalizing and harassing humanitarian search and rescue volunteers; denying search and rescue teams access to land jurisdictions; denying humanitarian parole to family members who want to search for their loved ones; and failing to provide critical information—like access to eyewitnesses—or providing outright false and misleading information.
In one case, the Derechos Humanos Missing Migrant Crisis Line received a call from the sister of a man named Manuel, who had been lost in the desert for nine days and called his family to tell them he could no longer walk. Manuel wanted to turn himself into Border Patrol, which he told his sister was nearby, but he couldn’t make it to them.
Manuel’s family contacted Border Patrol and asked them to search for Manuel, which the agency agreed to do. But when it became clear Border Patrol wasn’t searching for him, Manuel’s brother left his home in Mexico to search the area of the desert Manuel described in his final phone call. The family also continued pushing Border Patrol to act, so agents removed Manuel’s traveling companions from detention to act as eyewitnesses in a search. According to the report, the eyewitnesses were brought to the search area, however Border Patrol agents refused to allow the eyewitnesses to lead them to Manuel’s last known location. Days later, volunteers with the Crisis Line learned Manuel’s brother crossed the border himself and found Manuel dead.
One of the report’s authors, Alicia Dinsmore, told Prism that the full scope of Border Patrol’s violence in the borderlands is hard to quantify because much of it is unreported or underreported.
“This is why we use the language of ‘disappearance.’ So much of the loss of human life isn’t counted in the death counts [provided by Border Patrol] each year. There is a real lack of documentation about what is happening. For example, counties don’t keep recordings of 911 calls for long periods of time. For years in Pima County, 911 audio recordings were destroyed after six months. The full scope of what is happening isn’t reflected in the United States’ official records, but it is reflected in the tragic loss of lives that families experience—families who never see or hear from their loved one again,” Dinsmore said.
Families who have lost loved ones because of Border Patrol’s deadly negligence and inaction have no real recourse for justice or accountability. Taleb said that the process for filing any form of grievance with Border Patrol is arduous, often monolingual, and a bureaucratic dead end.
“Border Patrol does not have systems built in to be accountable to people because they’re an enforcement agency that is not built around accountability,” Taleb said. “The conclusion we have come to is that this is beyond accountability. There is no form of recourse that will address this crisis that leaves Border Patrol in control of what is happening in the borderlands. It would be illogical to think you can hold an agency accountable for a crisis of their own making.”
Taleb said she understands that people might read the latest No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos report in disbelief because it seems unbelievable that such a well-resourced agency would choose not to enact searches for people who are dying and calling pleading for help, but she said it’s important to understand that Border Patrol does not care about loss of life. “They are not going to use their resources to find missing people because they use their resources to prioritize punitive action and enforcement,” the co-author told Prism.
It’s important to note that if the population of people calling in distress were American citizens, there would be a fundamentally different approach and outcome. The report found that in 37% of cases in which Border Patrol did mobilize search or rescue measures, the quality and scope of the agency’s efforts were seriously diminished when compared with government search and rescue standards for cases involving U.S. citizens in which there is a near 100% success rate of county-led search and rescues in the same or similar remote areas.
In one July 2016 case when a 56-year-old Salvadoran woman named María went missing in the borderlands, a Border Patrol agent told her family, “It’s not our problem to look for ‘illegals.’” This profound and deadly negligence is rooted in racism and xenophobia, and impacted families may be able to prove in court that Border Patrol engages in discriminatory practices.
“Governmental services providing one response to a group of people and not another is clearly a form of discrimination, and county governments transferring 911 calls to an agency that does not actually search for people is clearly a segregated system of emergency response that creates different outcomes based on who you are. It’s a discriminatory system,” Dinsmore said. “The court system is incredibly complex and the potential consequences of going into litigation are high stakes, but there is absolutely a case to be made for pursuing a lawsuit regarding discriminatory practices.”
No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos is in conversation with the Center for Constitutional Rights regarding a potential lawsuit, though they are currently only in the research phase.
Call to action
The organizations behind the report included a lengthy series of recommendations. Of primary importance is for government agencies to establish borderlands emergency response systems that are fully separate from immigration enforcement, and for government agencies at all levels to end discriminatory treatment toward undocumented people reporting emergencies in the borderlands. A call to action for the report’s readers can also be found on the No More Deaths website.
The organizations are also demanding that the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection—the agency that oversees Border Patrol—immediately demilitarize the border and decriminalize migration by legalizing border crossing, dismantling all border enforcement infrastructure, disempowering, disarming, and ultimately dissolving Border Patrol, and establishing a reparations program for the families of all people harmed, killed, and disappeared by Border Patrol.
“We cannot advocate for an equal system that upholds the border or that upholds the way in which people are treated at the border. People who are forced into a deadly situation should be searched for equally, but the demand cannot stop there,” Taleb said. “People shouldn’t be forced into deadly and remote areas of the desert, period.”
In 2020, the remains of 227 people were recovered in the borderlands of southern Arizona—the highest of any year on record.
Tina Vásquez is the senior reporter at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers’ rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.