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For migrants crossing into Southern Arizona, cellphone service is a matter of life and death
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For migrants crossing into Southern Arizona, cellphone service is a matter of life and death

A sealed bag containing items found on an unidentified migrant includes a cellphone. Humanitarian aid groups say emergency calls from migrants are treated differently than those from nonmigrants — lost hikers, for instance.

For migrants in remote areas of southern Arizona, carrying a cellphone with a charged battery and staying in range of a cell tower can be the difference between life and death, a longstanding problem that was brought back into focus last week by a report from Tucson-based humanitarian aid groups.

The problem is of renewed importance after the remains of 227 migrants were found across Southern Arizona last year, more than any year since the crisis of migrant deaths surged two decades ago. The crisis has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 migrants whose remains were recovered since 2001, and an unknown number who died but whose remains were never found.

Dropped calls, dead batteries

Just in the last month, the remains of 16 migrants were found in Southern Arizona, according to records compiled by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the Tucson-based aid group Humane Borders.

The report released last week by No More Deaths and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos drew on hundreds of calls to a migrant crisis line in 2015 and 2016, as well as nearly 2,200 audio recordings of 911 calls transferred by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to the Border Patrol from 2016 to 2018. The authors also interviewed officials with the Sheriff’s Department and the Border Patrol and drew on years of experience as humanitarian volunteers in Southern Arizona.

The report details numerous problems with cellphones, such as migrants not being able to afford a phone, frequent dropped calls, failing batteries, nonexistent cellphone coverage and a lack of effective search-and-rescue efforts when migrants are able to reach 911.

“Twenty-year-old Juan Carlos fell ill and became lost in the West Desert of Southern Arizona,” according to one example in the report. “He called 911 in the middle of the night from his Mexican cellphone and he also called his parents.”

The case notes for the call read “then his phone stopped answering, it appeared to be out of battery.” His family and humanitarian volunteers searched the area and found his body.

“Fifty-five-year-old Jorge disappeared somewhere on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Southern Arizona. Crisis Line volunteers noted that his mother “did not know if Jorge called 911. She was going to ask him when the call dropped. He was never heard from again,” according to another example.

At the Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday, the clear plastic bags that hold items found near migrants’ remains in 2020 showed some migrants traveled with flip phones or smartphones, but many only had a few coins, rosaries, or papers with phone numbers written on them.

Even if they all carried cellphones, the coverage maps for several of the largest cell carriers show large holes in coverage in the desert west of Tucson, including in the border-crossing corridor that runs through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge where the remains of more than 300 migrants were found since 2001.

“Move heaven and earth” in searches

In their experience dealing with the Sheriff’s Department and the Border Patrol, 911 calls are handled in much the same way now as they were during the period of the audio recordings, said Parker Deighan, a volunteer with No More Deaths.

When calls for help are transferred to the Border Patrol, they are handled by an “aggressive enforcement agency” that has “no accountability as to what the outcomes of these cases are,” she said.

No More Deaths is part of a lawsuit filed last week in federal court in New York to compel the Border Patrol to release records showing how the agency responds to distress calls from migrants.

With regard to the Sheriff’s Department, “it really appears that they have just washed their hands of their responsibility to people who are lost and missing in their jurisdiction,” Deighan said.

The Border Patrol pointed the Arizona Daily Star on Friday to a statement issued earlier in the week, which said the agency “remains committed to humanely securing the southern border” and “devotes the totality of its force to finding lost or injured individuals while also balancing the border security mission with which they are charged.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People of 2020, says migrant families at the U.S. border are weary and worried about whether they'll have an opportunity to enter the United States.

The agency regularly issues news releases showing agents rescuing migrants in distress in the Arizona desert, including a rescue Wednesday of a migrant who called the Tohono O’odham Police Department and said she was alone and unable to walk in the Baboquivari Mountains.

The call was routed to the Border Patrol about 2:30 a.m. and agents searched in the dark, using her GPS coordinates, until they found her about 7 a.m., according to the news release. She was airlifted from the mountains and taken to the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 286, where she was treated for her injuries until an ambulance arrived.

“CBP components will move heaven and earth to find someone who is lost, injured or unable to continue,” Tucson Sector interim chief John Modlin said in the news release. “All too often, like today, migrants are wearing camouflage and avoiding being seen until it’s too late. Luckily this woman was able to call for help, and we were able to determine her location.”

“Life safety is the priority”

Last week’s report by the aid groups said agents often fail to search for missing migrants and when they do search, they do not provide public information about the outcome. Agents also “routinely obstruct community-based efforts to locate and rescue the missing.”

The Star asked the Sheriff’s Department why 911 calls from migrants were transferred to the Border Patrol, rather than treated in the same way as a lost hiker, which often involves large-scale rescue efforts.

The department said that “regardless of immigration status, lost-person calls are handled in the same fashion; life safety is the priority.”

The department transfers calls to the Border Patrol when callers indicate they are in lost in a “geographical location where Border Patrol could be the closest resource,” such as remote areas of unincorporated Pima County, according to the statement. The department maintains control of the call after they transfer it to the Border Patrol and checks the status within several hours of the initial call.

When the call comes from an area where deputies are the closest resource, the department takes the lead in the search and rescue, which involves medically trained personnel and air assets if needed.

Working together, the combined resources of the Sheriff’s Department and the Border Patrol “provide a wealth of capabilities” in remote areas of the county, according to the statement.

“Regardless of where the lost person is from, what language they speak, or the phone number they call from, it is still a life and our top priority,” PCSD said.

Measures can reduce deaths

Deighan cast doubt on whether 911 calls were handled the same regardless of the person’s immigration status. Volunteers have seen cases where the Sheriff’s Department transferred calls to the Border Patrol when deputies learned the incident involved a migrant, even when the calls came from “very close to town,” she said.

Volunteers also have seen the department mobilize resources for searches in remote areas that involved lost hikers, rather than migrants, said Sophie Smith, a No More Deaths volunteer and co-author of the report.

Expanding the search-and-rescue efforts for migrants could require substantially more resources to law enforcement agencies in charge of search and rescue, either from local, state or federal governments.

The aid groups support any effort to save lives and all possible avenues for families to find help for their loved ones, but they are “calling for the reversal of polices that are putting people in harm’s way to begin with,” Smith said.

“I think that dealing with the root causes that are putting people out into the desert with no cellphone reception and leading them to die on U.S. soil because of blisters on their feet, that is what needs to be addressed, more than beefing up law enforcement,” she said.

Smaller measures that could help migrants in distress include 911 dispatchers tracing more calls from migrants in distress, Deighan said. Authorities also could reach out to cell providers to get coordinates to where a person last turned on their phone, but that is rare in cases of migrants in distress.

“Those are things that are pretty standard in cases of lost hikers that we’re not seeing in these cases,” Deighan said.

In terms of filling holes in cellphone coverage, Deighan said adding towers on the Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge “would probably be huge” for helping find migrants, “but it’s not going to solve this crisis and it definitely is a band-aid solution.”

More effective steps would be to remove checkpoints, walls, and surveillance technology that force migrants to walk through the desert for days or weeks, she and Smith said.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar

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