PHOENIX – The number of migrants rescued by U.S. border agents so far this year in Arizona’s desert wilderness has already surpassed the total for 2019, according to U.S. Border Patrol officials.
Rescues spiked despite restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border during the COVID-19 pandemic and with three of the hottest months remaining in the fiscal year.
The number of migrant rescues in Arizona goes up seasonally starting around March, when temperatures along the desert border begin to reach triple digits and remain that way until about September.
On Thursday, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for southern Arizona until Monday. Temperatures along the border are forecast to reach up to 121 degrees in Yuma County and up to 118 degrees in western Pima County, leaving border agents on high alert.
“Many times they (migrants) don’t carry enough water to survive the journey, so they’re wandering through the desert because of how large it is, and they may not necessarily know where to go, or they get lost,” said Agent Jose Garibay, the spokesman for Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector. “They could be wandering the desert for days.”
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“Not only are they lost in 118-, 120-degree weather, but now the agents themselves are having to go out there and look for these individuals as well, so … it’s also dangerous for the agents that are working out there as well,” he added.
Border Patrol reported that agents in Arizona have rescued at least 1,054 people so far this fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30. But the majority of rescues take place during the warmer months.
In comparison, agents tallied 1,006 rescues in Arizona last year.
This year’s spike corresponds to an overall increase in migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border since March. That’s when the U.S. government began implementing a series of restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19, including immediately expelling most apprehended migrants back to Mexico.
Border enforcement statistics published Thursday showed that agents apprehended 30,300 migrants, mostly single adults along the U.S.-Mexico border in June. They turned back nearly 90 percent.
Apprehensions have climbed after bottoming out in April, the first full month with the border restrictions in place because of the new coronavirus, according to the data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol.
Rescues concentrated in Pima County
The number of migrants processed along Arizona’s border with Mexico also have been rising over the past three months. Apprehensions rose 47 percent from May to 5,604 in June, according to CBP’s numbers.
“Primarily, the person we’re rescuing is the adult male. We’re seeing folks from Mexico as well as Central America, ” said Agent Daniel Hernandez, the spokesman for Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “We passed last year’s number in June, so we’re roughly around 980.”
Enforcement of Arizona’s 372-mile-long border with Mexico is split between two Border Patrol sectors. The Tucson Sector covers the eastern two thirds and accounts for the overwhelming majority of migrant rescues. The Yuma Sector covers the remaining third to the west.
While rescues are up along the entire Arizona border, a large number of them are concentrated in the West Desert, the name border agents use to describe a vast area in western Pima County that includes some of the driest, hottest and most remote areas in the state.
Each year during the warmer months, the Tucson Sector surges staff and resources to this part of the border in anticipation of a spike in calls. They have 34 rescue beacons spread throughout the area that migrants can activate when in distress.
The Yuma Sector records fewer rescues each year, but agents have noticed a significant increase in the past three months.
They’ve carried out 80 rescues so far this year. By this point in 2019, agents had recorded 64. Most of the rescues in the Yuma Sector are concentrated along the remote, eastern portions of the sector, adjoining the West Desert.
“With everything still getting hotter, and it’s still not being the hottest time of the year so far, we do definitely foresee more rescues continuing to be made,” Garibay said.
Critics argue Border Patrol’s policies are responsible not just for the rescues, but also the deaths of migrants recorded at the border. They point to the agency’s 1994 “prevention through deterrence” strategy for pushing migrants and smugglers to more remote and rugged areas of the border.
The US border enforcement strategy of “prevention through deterrence” is DESIGNED to cause people to suffer and die.
So when Border Patrol “rescues” someone it’s “like a ship captain pushing everybody in the water and then throwing in a few life jackets.” https://t.co/86o2ei7u63
— No More Deaths (@NoMoreDeaths) July 3, 2020
Migrants hospitalized, then expelled
Border Patrol officials in the past three months have described multiple rescues along the Arizona border.
The most recent example, disclosed Thursday, described two rescues earlier in the week. In the first one from Monday, agents on patrol at the Tohono O’odham Nation encountered and treated an unconscious 20-year-old migrant from Guatemala for severe dehydration.
The next day, agents found two migrants wandering in the desert near Tombstone, in Cochise County. The man was fine, but the 26-year-old woman traveling with him was drifting in and out of consciousness, the Border Patrol said.
In both instances, medical crews transported the two unconscious migrants to a nearby hospital via helicopter, often times the easiest and fastest method of transportation, especially in remote areas of the border.
On March 21, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began expelling migrants apprehended at the border to their countries of origin, rather than processing them, to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks at their permanent facilities.
Most expulsions, under the authority of an emergency order the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19 under Title 42, happen within two hours, according to the Border Patrol.
Hernandez said the first priority whenever they encounter migrants in distress or in need of rescue is to get them medical attention, if needed.
“We’re going to make sure they get the treatment that they need. Once they’re given clean bill of health by medical professional, then we can put them back in the immigration system and perhaps they may be candidates for the Title 42 expulsion,” he said.
Humanitarian aid work continues
The Arizona border remains one of the deadliest corridors for migrants attempting to enter the U.S. illegally.
The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner tracks the number of human remains recovered each year from the deserts along the area comprising Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.
In the 2019 calendar year, the office reported the recovery of the remains of 153 “undocumented border crossers,” the term they use for migrants. That’s the highest number in the past five years, although the number indicates when the remains were found, not when the person died.
This year, 96 human remains have been recovered at the Arizona border, according to a map of migrant mortality maintained by the aid group Humane Borders, using data from the medical examiner.
Of that total, 82 remains were recovered in Pima County, most of them in the West Desert where the Tucson Sector said the majority of migrant rescues are concentrated.
Humanitarian organizations, such as No More Deaths, have continued to drop off gallons of water for migrants trekking through the desert, especially in western Pima County, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today the desert was so hot I drank 3 full Nalgene bottles of water & electrolytes without having to pee… 😕 But that’s why every @NoMoreDeaths gallon counts. We put out of 100 gallons. #SafePassage, no one should have to walk this desert in this sun. 🌵🖤 pic.twitter.com/SoiQSslsVA
— Tinea (@tinea10) July 6, 2020
Large sections of the Arizona-Mexico border have become construction sites as crews replace outdated fencing or vehicle barriers with 30-foot steel bollards.
There’s active construction as several sites along the border, including at rugged desert areas in southwestern Arizona, where most of the rescues take place.
Construction crews have finished installing new fencing along 31 miles in Yuma County. Another 212 miles are under construction, according to Customs and Border Protection: 137 miles in the Tucson Sector and 75 miles in the Yuma Sector.
Border Patrol officials said they haven’t seen a correlation between active construction sites and the locations where they have been encountering migrants in need of rescue.
Follow Rafael Carranza on Twitter @RafaelCarranza.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Migrant rescues spike at the Arizona border despite COVID-19 pandemic