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Border Patrol team working missing migrant cases

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Border Patrol team working missing migrant cases

  • One of Border Patrol's Blackhawk helicopters hovers over an agent during a demonstration of rescue efforts in April 2015 near Amado.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comOne of Border Patrol's Blackhawk helicopters hovers over an agent during a demonstration of rescue efforts in April 2015 near Amado.

For the last nine months, a team of Border Patrol agents in Tucson has been working to close gaps in the exchange of information between law enforcement agencies and humanitarian groups in an effort to improve rescue and recovery efforts in the southwestern desert. 

Since June, a small group of BP agents have been working as part of the Missing Migrant Team, Tucson Sector officials announced in a press release Monday. The group serves as a "consistent point of contact" for those hoping to launch search and rescue efforts, or in tragic cases, locate and identify remains.

While the number of agents can fluctuate depending on the situation, a "core group" of agents will be assigned to the team, said Agent Adrienne Crowley, an agency spokeswoman. "The situation very much dictates the number of people involved," she said, noting that a rescue effort could include agents from a nearby station, agents dedicated to search and rescue known as BORSTAR, as well as helicopter crews. 

Humanitarian groups and Border Patrol, Crowley said, both have a "stake in preserving life along the border," but sometimes coordination of "rescue and recovery didn't come together because of gaps in information." 

"Often the family or friends of a missing migrant will call different authorities, and this can cause a disconnect that we found caused a lot of delays," Crowley said. "We want to close that gap and conduct rescue operations or recovery as soon as we can," she said. 

So the agency examined the issue, asking experienced Border Patrol agents, border community members, consulate officials and humanitarian groups to pull together their expertise, resulting in the Missing Migrant Team, Crowley said. 

The team works quickly to search the agency's databases, checking to see if a missing migrant has already been apprehended by agents — or in the event that someone has likely died — agents use records to find photographs and fingerprints that can help identify the person. 

The group has worked on 94 cases in Pima and Maricopa counties since June, helping to process, identify and repatriate remains, Crowley said. The team also assisted in resolving 18 out of 46 missing migrant reports from humanitarian organizations and foreign consulates, she said.  

Migrants are encouraged to call 911 "before their situation becomes an emergency," Customs and Border Protection spokesman Rob Daniels said in January. CBP is the Border Patrol's parent agency.

"The sooner they call, the faster CBP resources can respond. Dehydration, injury or hypothermia can quickly become critical without proper care," Daniels said. 

But families may avoid contacting the agency responsible for apprehensions and deportations, said Robin Reineke, the executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, a humanitarian group that seeks to identify and repatriate remains found in Arizona. 

"It's not an irrational fear," Reineke said. "We're talking about a vulnerable population, made of people who may not be in the country legally and they have a real fear that by contacting Border Patrol, or even filing a missing person's report, they are at risk." 

Fortunately, families don't have to report to a government agency because in southern Arizona there is a range of local non-governmental organizations, including Derechos Hermanos and No More Deaths that can help, she said. 

Colibri Center, she said, works very carefully to only send Border Patrol only the information it needs to conduct a search. 

"It's very important for us to note that we don't share all of our data with law enforcement, and we don't share information without express permission from families," Reineke said. 

Reineke also said that foreign consulate offices can be a source of help, though recovery efforts are only one of the "enormous range of duties" that the Mexican consulate, and other work on. The Colibri Center is focused on recovery efforts, and has worked with Border Patrol for many years in that capacity, she said. 

"We try to get the family information as quickly as possible," Reineke said. First, volunteers at Colibri will check to see if a missing person has been apprehended. If the person has not been arrested, but there is an file from a previous encounter, volunteers from Colibri will ask for those to aid in identification. 

They will also attempt to gather geographical information through interviews, which will then be transmitted to BORSTAR — especially if there's a chance at rescue, she said. 

"If we get a distress call, we tell them to hang up and call 911," Reineke said, but otherwise volunteers use interviews to narrow down a more precise location for remains. 

The Missing Migrant Team, Reineke said, is an "attempt to institutionalize efforts that have been going on a long time." 

The BP group is an evolution of a program that began in March 2015, when the Border Patrol began operating the Joint Intelligence and Operations Center to track and coordinate responses to 911 calls from migrants lost in the desert. 

Until the advent of JIOC, emergency calls from migrants would be transferred from 911 services to a single BORSTAR cellphone shared among roughly 50 search and rescue agents in the sector. Spotty coverage in the desert often led to dropped calls and other communication issues, said supervisor Mario Agundez, during a demonstration of the agency's rescue efforts last April. 

With JIOC in place, calls sent to Border Patrol go to the Tucson Sector headquarters where agents on duty 24 hours a day can interview stranded migrants, attempt to find their location and dispatch rescuers who can focus on their search, Agundez said. 

This also makes it easier for agents to use cell towers to triangulate a person's location, he said. 

Agents at JIOC handled up to seven calls per day through the summer, totaling 467 calls from March to the end of the fiscal year in September, the agency said in January. Border Patrol agents operating in Tucson and Yuma Sectors, covering all of Arizona, rescued 804 people in all, the agency reported.

From 2014 to 2015, the number of deceased people discovered by Border Patrol agents dropped 38 percent in Arizona. 

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