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As temperatures soar, Border Patrol gives agents 'heat-stress kits'

Pilot program aims to help migrants suffering from heat-related illnesses

As temperatures soar in the desert this summer, Border Patrol agents in Southern Arizona will carry "heat-stress kits" containing tools to help migrants suffering from heat-related illnesses.

Agents at stations near Three Points and Casa Grande will be given the kits as part of a 90-day pilot project to study their feasibility, and to consider whether they should be deployed nationwide to prevent heat-stress cases across the Southwest Border. 

Packed into a small pouch that can be clipped or strapped to the vest agents wear as part of their uniform, the kits contain electrolyte packets, instant cold packs, cooling towels, sunscreen, and disposable emergency blankets agents can use to create shade, said Tucson Sector Chief John Modlin during a press conference earlier this month. 

Agents already carry first-ad kits and water, Modlin said, but agents at the two stations will also carry the heat-stress kits to mitigate a "potentially tragic scenario," allowing them to provide "immediate life saving measures."

Around 230 agents trained as EMTs or paramedics can help, including agents who can administer intravenous fluids to treat severe dehydration, Modlin said. And helicopters flown by Air and Marine Operations, a part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—Border Patrol's parent agency—can deliver agents with elite Border Patrol Search Rescue and Team to remote areas to "locate and rescue migrants," Modlin said.

Along with the kits, agents will get additional training to recognize the signs of heat stress, including "red flags" which determine if someone needs medical help, said Gerry Carrasco, an assistant chief assigned to the agency's Office of the Chief Medical Officer. 

"This kit on its own is not going to save lives," said Assistant Chief William Beltran, part the agency's Strategic Planning and Analysis Directorate. "This is an intermediate tool," he said, giving agents time to get a person to "a safe place" and ensure they receive the treatment they need." 

The kits are part of a "layered approach to save lives," which includes training and resources, emergency response planning, as well as technology including rescue beacons, 911 placards, and more, he said. 

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During the fiscal year, which began in October, Tucson Sector agents performed 2,192 rescues. Nationwide, the agency said it performed over 14,000 rescues. 

"The desert is unforgiving. The mountains are unforgiving. The human smuggling organizations are unforgiving. Illegally crossing in this area is a potentially deadly decision," Modlin said. "That message remains the reality." 

Not enough migrants preparing to cross the desert "hear the truth about how dangerous our desert is, or the fact our border is closed," Modlin added.

As summer temps ramp up, border encounters rise

Modlin's warning comes as Border Patrol agents encountered people nearly 240,000 times in May, a number drastically increased by the continued implementation of Title 42, which allows officials with CBP to rapidly expel people if they've traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.
CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said about 25 percent of those encounters involved someone who had "at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months." 

"The large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a higher-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts, which means that total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border," he said. 

"Current restrictions at the U.S. border have not changed: single adults and families encountered at the Southwest Border will continue to be expelled, where appropriate, under Title 42," Magnus said. 

"As temperatures start to rise in the summer, human smugglers will continue to exploit vulnerable populations and recklessly endanger the lives of migrants for financial gain," he said. "The terrain along the Southwest Border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert that migrants must hike after crossing the border are unforgiving. Our message to those who would try and gain illegal entry to the United States remains the same – don't make the dangerous journey only to be sent back."

Advocates have warned the continued implementation of Title 42 will add to the "chaos" along the border, especially as desperate migrants waiting in Mexico's port cities for a chance to seek asylum try to enter the U.S. in remote stretches of the desert. 

Around 26,000 people were encountered in the Tucson Sector. More than 22,000 people were single adults, while another 1,937 people came as families, and around 1,800 were children traveling with parents or guardians. Of those, Tucson Sector agents immediately expelled all but around 6,800 people under Title 42. 

While apprehensions have spiked since April 2020, the number of remains found in the desert have increased since 2017. 

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From October 1 through the end of May, Tucson Sector agents reported the deaths of 48 people in Arizona's drought-stricken desert. However, this only represents remains found by Border Patrol agents, or people who died while under their care. However, the Pima County Medical Examiner has investigated the remains of 98 people during the same time period. Most of the discoveries were skeletal remains in or around the Tohono O'odham Nation, one of the most deadly sections of Arizona-Mexico border.

Last year, according to data from PCOME—as part of a partnership with the advocacy group Humane Borders—the remains of 225 people believed to be "undocumented border crossers" were found in the desert. In many cases, it remains unclear when the person died. The database only shows when remains were discovered, which may be "weeks, months, or years after the actual date of death," the group said.

Since 2006, the remains of more than 2,800 people have been found in Southern Arizona.
Modlin said the agency takes the situation "very seriously," adding that the Tucson Sector uses "every tool to ensure the safety of anyone crossing through Arizona's treacherous desert." 

BP expands humanitarian efforts

Over more than two decades, Border Patrol has attempted to mitigate deaths in the desert beginning with the Border Safety Initiative—a bi-national campaign, which included public messages about the dangers migrants face illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In recent years, the agency has added rescue beacons in the desert—including 34 in the Tucson Sector—and expanded the number of EMTs and paramedics who can render aid. 

Most recently, the Tucson Sector has standardized how it handles 911 calls with the Arizona Air Coordination Center. In an office packed with monitors, officials can track agents, as well as helicopters and drones, and respond to emergencies. 

Critics have argued that the Border Patrol's own enforcement policies have pushed people into the most dangerous parts of Arizona's desert under a 1992 policy known as "Prevention through Deterrence" — which assumed that by forcing people into the harshest parts of the U.S.-Mexico border's deserts, people would stop attempting the trip. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, large groups of people were led by guides, often known as "coyotes," who could lead people from water-source to water-source. But with stepped up enforcement, migration paths have shifted. People are increasingly attempting to cross the stark reaches of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, as well as craggy heights in the Baboquivari Mountains to get into Arizona. 

Meanwhile, guides have shifted their tactics, relying on spotters and social media apps to send people through the desert. Migrants who are hurt, or slow the group down, may be abandoned and left without food or water, and they must hope that their cellphone works and they can get help.

Last year, the human rights group No More Deaths sharply criticized how 911 calls are managed in the Arizona desert. "As a direct consequence of U.S. government policy, there is an urgent and growing need for emergency search and rescue services for undocumented people in distress in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands," the group said in a report published last year. "However, the same agency responsible for causing these emergencies—the U.S. Border Patrol—has positioned itself as the primary and often sole responder to distress calls involving undocumented people." 

Calls from crossing the desert illegally are often handed over to Border Patrol, giving the agency a "monopoly over search and rescue in the borderlands," and therefore "access to life-saving assistance is severely diminished or simply non-existent." 

This "Border Patrol-dominated emergency response system" is "fraught with dead ends," NMD said.

Humanitarian response 'unmatched' 

Modlin defended his agency, calling CBP's humanitarian efforts " unmatched." 

Agents are regularly asked to "risk their own lives to save the lives of others," he said, adding that the summer months are "exceptionally dangerous." 

Modlin said that while families often cross in large groups—crossing the international boundary to give themselves up to agents— nearly 90 percent of the people crossing in Arizona attempt to avoid apprehension, dressing in camouflage "from head to toe." 

"They are going to get way up in the mountains to try to avoid apprehension, or in the most remote desert areas," he said, adding "those are the ones who are most likely going to need this help." 

They've already spent four or five days in the desert, he said, often carrying just a single gallon of water, which "won't last after the first day in these temperatures." 

"Heat exhaustion and heatstroke in the desert are highly probable for migrants wandering our remote mountains and valleys," he said.

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"We do everything we can to ensure every migrant who needs help gets it," Modlin said. However, he warned that in temperatures over 100 degrees, a person without water, food or shelter is a "statistic waiting to happen." 

"So I reiterate if you're someone thinking of illegally crossing our border, especially during the months of intense summer heat, reconsider. Our borders are closed," Modlin said. "The journey is severe, not all who wander into our desert will be saved despite the very best of our life saving efforts."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Tucson Sector Border Patrol Chief John Modlin speaks about the Border Patrol's new cooling kits during a press conference on June 9, 2022.

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