Activist offers GPS 'life preservers' for illegal migrants crossing US-Mexican border

GPS devices in the hands of migrant smugglers could save the lives of their human cargo, he says. But the US Border Patrol warns that the devices only encourage people to make the dangerous trip across the Arizona desert.

A human-rights activist is banking on technology and the good will of those who smuggle migrants across the US-Mexico border to save lives during Arizona’s searing summer.

The Rev. Robin Hoover is working to put GPS devices in the hands of smugglers, known as coyotes, so that they can alert search and rescue if trouble arises as they journey north with their human cargo through an unforgiving desert.

“It’s like giving a life preserver to somebody that’s using a boat,” the reverend says.

The US Border Patrol has a different view of Mr. Hoover’s unorthodox plan. Instead of saving lives, the cell phone-sized devices can give migrants a false sense of security that encourages them to take on the risks of traversing the harsh desert terrain, says Steven Adkison, a Border Patrol spokesman.

“The best way to save lives is to discourage anyone from attempting the difficult trek in the first place,” he adds.

Even as the number of border crossings declines, scores of migrants continue to perish each year as they attempt to cross the Arizona desert. Most die from heat-related causes during the summer months. During the past decade, authorities have recovered some 2,000 bodies in the desert.

So far Hoover has distributed five of the devices south of the border. Each costs about $225. He is convinced that the 100 devices he wants to give out, which he plans to buy with help from donations, will help people survive the rough condition they encounter in remote areas.

"That would mean 100 groups in the desert would have more safety than they've ever had," he says.

The reverend says criticism that the practice is unethical has no merit. “We’re taking moral authority and providing it with high technology and we’re calling upon them [smugglers] to do the right thing.” Contrary to how they are usually portrayed, not all smugglers are heartless, Hoover says.

But Mr. Adkison argues that “unlike coyotes that lure people into dangerous area with the goal of turning a dollar, the Border Patrol is concerned about people’s lives.” He points out that the Border Patrol has instituted various initiatives to aid migrants in distress with the aid of beacons, warning signage, and field rescue equipment.

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