Border Patrol: from cop to rescue ranger

Troy Newman epitomizes the softer side of the tough-as-nails Border Patrol.

In the agency's Ford Expedition, he careens down a desert back road, dodging saguaros and mesquite trees, on a rescue mission. He brakes at a clearing where four illegal immigrants have just been found dehydrated and lost near the town of Sells, on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. One is unconscious.

"Our goal here, first and foremost, is to respond to any emergencies," Agent Newman says, grabbing first-aid equipment and running to the side of an immigrant already surrounded by a tangle of paramedics.

An emergency medical technician with the Border Patrol's Search, Trauma and Rescue team, or BORSTAR, Newman is part of the agency's effort to, quite simply, save the lives of illegal immigrants who try to cross hundreds of miles of desert at a time when the mercury soars to as high as 115 degrees F. This humanitarian face is a response to the rising number of deaths - which topped 400 last year.

This thrust has been partly necessitated by Border Patrol's own strategy, which focuses law-enforcement efforts on border cities - in turn driving immigrants into remote, harsh areas. But the moves to provide more assistance don't have universal approval, with some immigrant advocates saying the approach is just an exercise in politics.

To Tucson Sector Chief David Aguilar, however, the rescue attempts fit hand-in-glove with the Border Patrol's traditional law-enforcement mission. "BORSTAR is a more formalized approach to what we have done historically to respond to needs of people traversing the border," he says.

The BORSTAR program is a work in progress, with about 50 EMTs monitoring 281 miles of border in the Tucson Sector, and a similar force in San Diego.

It's an outgrowth of the 1998 Border Safety Initiative, an Immigration and Naturalization Service policy to "make the border safer for migrants, officers and border residents," according to department documents. This includes hot lines for concerned relatives of immigrants, educating would-be border crossers about the risks, and increasing rescue coordination with Mexican officials.

Under the plan, the Tucson Sector is expanding its fleet of surveillance aircraft to 12 and will add 75 agents to its summertime staff. They'll also improve communication and mapping capabilities.

Border Patrol agents who aren't with BORSTAR are also learning advanced first-aid skills, and all vehicles will be equipped with emergency supplies such as extra water, rehydrating fluids, and medical kits. In addition, the agency continues training new BORSTAR agents sophisticated procedures like rappelling from helicopters into difficult terrain.

Furthermore, both the United States and Mexico have established more surveillance of a "high-risk zone" along the border's most rugged stretches. Patrols in those areas will increase every time the temperature reaches 100 degrees.

These latest steps gained urgency following the May deaths of 14 immigrants in the western Arizona desert. Last month, Border Patrol Chief Gustavo De La Vina met to discuss the crisis with Roberto Rodriguez-Hernandez, a deputy director of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The officials pledged greater binational efforts, including the deployment of additional manpower and equipment in high-risk areas, and more search-and-rescue teams.

To Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigrant Forum in Washington, growing binational cooperation reveals a growing consensus for reform. "To me, these are confidence-building steps towards a new US-Mexico agreement on immigration," he says. In this country, "Politicians of both parties, backed by the general public, don't know what to do, but want to do something."

But Tucson attorney Isabel Garcia, of the border-rights group Derechos Humanos, sees the effort as just a Band-Aid. "It's an attempt to make the American public believe there's something being done to save people," she says. "The Border Patrol officials know full well what their policies are doing to people."

The Rev. John Fife, who operated an underground railroad for Central American refugees in the 1980s, concurs. "If the Border Patrol was really serious about saving lives, it would be doing far more," says Mr. Fife, who was among eight activists convicted on various immigrant-smuggling charges in 1986. "There is still militarization along the border, and the migrants are still going to flee from the Border Patrol, unless they're in desperate trouble."

Nevertheless Mr. Sharry, of the National Immigrant Forum, predicts that meetings this fall between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox will result in greater safety efforts. And he sees an expansion of temporary worker visas to ease immigration tensions. President Bush is reportedly considering a guest-worker plan similar to the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican laborers to travel north from the 1940s through the 1960s.

At the same time, the Bush administration continues a border law-enforcement buildup begun under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. That law required the Border Patrol to recruit new 1,000 new agents annually through this year. Though hirings have not kept pace with that mandate, the White House proposes funding an additional 1,140 agents over the next two years.

But policy negotiations seem very far away from this hot desert clearing where four illegal immigrants hover. Three of them, who are relatively healthy, are taken into custody. Agent Newman attends to the fourth, pouring ice over him before a helicopter roars him off in a cloud of tawny dust to a Tucson hospital.

"When you have both heat and humidity, it's the worst of two worlds for these guys," Newman says, putting his gear away. "We always hope we can just get to them while they're still alive. That's what our job is about."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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