Border patrol, Mexico 911 operators work to save ill, injured migrants who cross border

YUMA – The U.S. Border Patrol and Mexico emergency dispatchers are collaborating to save the lives of people who are crossing the U.S. border in the desert heat and succumbing to illness or injury.

The program led to the rescue of a young boy and, later, a married couple who ran out of water after walking for two days, Carlos Beltran, a Mexico dispatcher, said in Spanish.

“When one country collaborates with another country, both countries benefit,” Beltran said.

Border Patrol search and rescue agents this week demonstrated what they do for the media, saying agents’ job is not only to deport people who cross into the country illegally. Justin Kallinger, a Border Patrol spokesman, said they have another imperative: to help people survive.

“It’s all about the human side of it. No one wants to see someone hurt or injured,” Kallinger said.

A long, deadly journey

Mexico residents risk a dangerous journey through desert terrain to cross into the United States illegally. What some expect to be a one-day hike often stretches to five, agents said. Border crossers often don’t take enough water and become dehydrated in scorching summer temperatures.

At some point, they have to decide whether to keep going, and risk death, or make a desperate call for help.

“One of the first things a victim of dehydration will do is strip off their clothes thinking that will cool them down,” said agent Brett Worsencroft. “They will get delirious and that’s usually when they’ll call.”

That cell phone call might not reach the right people in the U.S. Perhaps it was made to a local sheriff’s office and the person did not speak fluent Spanish.

Working to save lives

Under the new system, a 911 call from a cell phone with a Mexican carrier is automatically routed to the Mexico emergency-communications agency, Mexico’s Command, Control, Communications and Computer Agency.

The center employees can better pinpoint the caller’s location through cell towers and speak with them more fluently, Kevin Michael, a Border Patrol supervisor, said. They relay the information to the Border Patrol, which starts rescue operations.

They use ATVs, K9 units and helicopters to find people in distress. Those who have minor injuries or illnesses such as dehydration are taken to a Yuma hospital while those in more serious condition are flown to Phoenix for medical attention.

Once someone’s health is restored, they are taken to a detention center for eventual return to Mexico.

On the Southwest border that stretches from California to Texas, almost 4,000 border crossers were rescued in 2016, according to the Border Patrol. It’s unknown how many people were rescued because of the new collaboration with Mexico, Border Patrol agents said.

“It’s hard to say if we have more rescues,” Michael said of the months-old collaboration with the Mexico emergency-communications agency. “Before this we didn’t know how many calls we might have been missing.”

No matter the numbers, the collaboration with Mexico is valuable, those involved in the program said.

“Without them we can’t complete the puzzle that we have here,” Kallinger said.

(Video by Sunaina Tandon/ Cronkite News)