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Search, Rescue, Deport

Summer heat has Border Patrol agents in Texas rescuing illegal immigrants.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 1998


To Dudley Braesicke, a trained Border Patrol tracker here, the dozen sets of footprints crossing this white dusty road are about as fresh as they come. Just from sheer experience, he can tell that the tracks are only a few hours old, because the dust inside them hasn't been bleached yet by the morning sun. He also knows they belong to illegal Mexican immigrants, and that if he and his crew don't find them shortly on their northward trek, they could easily succumb to the heat.

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"You find them anywhere from totally exhausted to being all right," says Mr. Braesicke, head of the brush walkers, a crew of agents specially trained in tracking aliens into the thorny west Texas terrain. "On days like this, they usually stop around noon and lay up through the heat of the day ... but some of the younger ones just keep going. That's when it gets dangerous."

All along the Southern border, from the lower Rio Grande Valley to the Pacific Ocean, Border Patrol officers are increasingly finding themselves in the position of not only apprehending illegal aliens, but saving them as well.

Crossing this border has always been dangerous, but this year's heat wave has taken an especially grisly toll: Since May, there have been at least 51 heat-related deaths in Texas alone, up from nine last year.

"I think we're facing a much more serious situation," says David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's central section, which extends from New Mexico to the Texas Gulf Coast and on up to North Dakota and Montana. "In past years, we had immigrants crossing but they were using old familiar terrain. They had windmills and stock tanks filled with water to rely on. This year, because of the extended dry period, those tanks and windmills just don't have water."

New approach

To meet the need, the Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have launched a massive public-relations initiative called Operation Lifesaver. Television and radio ads educate the public in the US on what to do if they spot someone in distress. In addition, Mexican TV stations are carrying ads that warn people about the dangers of the heat and the terrain.

Here in the Del Rio sector, where Bracketville is located, Border Patrol officers have started carrying extra water and medical supplies for those aliens they find in distress. Some agents say the higher death rate may be a sign of not just the heat, but also how effective the Border Patrol has become in other areas, through such efforts as Operation Rio Grande in South Texas and Operation Hold the Line in El Paso. With those better-manned areas effectively under control, Del Rio and Laredo have become the illegal entry of choice, and apprehensions in Del Rio are up nearly 20 percent over last year.

"Operations in other areas are working, and they're diverting the flow this way," says Paul Berg, the tall silver-haired chief patrol officer for the Del Rio sector. "So, if you couple that with the heat, it's a ticket for death. We're just trying to keep people alive for the next eight weeks. Maybe the advertisements will slow them up, and if not, at least they will educate them to the challenges that they face."

Old-fashioned tracking

Out among the purple sage, huisache, and mesquite of the Perdido Ranch, Braesicke's fellow officers have their work cut out for them. Up in the sky, a small plane is looking for the aliens among the dense brush. On the ground, rookie agent Lee Edwards is using much more ancient techniques, little changed from the days of the hunter-gatherers. He has already followed the group of 12 for more than three miles, occasionally losing the trail in rocky spots. In their trucks, Braesicke and another agent drive on the ranch roads ahead, looking for signs of the group crossing into the next ranch.