SOUTHERN ARIZONA — Peppered across the vast, rugged desert along the southern border are dozens of 30-foot steel poles, each topped with a battery-powered strobe light. These are rescue beacons, the first of which were erected more than two decades ago in response to a spike in migrant deaths.
Migrants who find themselves in distress press a red button on the pole, which activates the strobe and sends a radio signal to Border Patrol agents. Sequential bursts of blue light temporarily turn the white-tipped grasses of the Sonoran Desert blue.
Border Patrol argues that these beacons, which have been used for nearly 30 years, help save lives and negate the need for humanitarian efforts by volunteer groups, such as No More Deaths.
Humanitarians, however, say the beacons aren’t enough, and they promise to continue to leave food, water and other aid for migrants in danger of dehydration or other exposure-related illnesses in the punishing desert.
The rescue beacons played a role in the conviction early this year of four No More Deaths volunteers who had dropped pallets of SunVista beans and plastic gallon jugs of water near Charlie Bell Pass in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where migrants trying to elude authorities are known to cross the border.
No More Deaths has been leaving aid for border crossers for more than a decade. It focuses on Cabeza Prieta, which runs along 56 miles of the border with Mexico.
But the food the four women left that day in August 2017 was found by Michael West, an officer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
West confiscated the supplies and ordered the women to leave. They complied but were charged with misdemeanors involving littering and entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit. The women argued that they didn’t have the permit because its language was changed to prohibit supply drops on the refuge.
In federal court in Tucson last January, Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick were found guilty. They later were fined and given unsupervised probation.
Prosecutors had argued that the need for humanitarian aid from No More Deaths and similar groups is alleviated by the rescue beacons.
In 2018, two rescue beacons were relocated to areas of the wildlife refuge where migrant death rates are higher. One was placed near Charlie Bell Pass, where West confronted the four volunteers more than a year before.
The beacons were developed by Customs and Border Protection in the late 1990s in response to rising numbers of migrant deaths in the Tucson Sector. According to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, the remains of 2,816 undocumented border crossers were discovered in the sector from 2000 through 2017.
There are 34 rescue beacons in Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.
“If an individual who’s in distress would hit this button, that would signal to a radio dispatch room at any Border Patrol station that somebody is here, and they need help,” Border Patrol Agent Joseph Curran said. “We would send an agent out as soon as possible to get this individual to definitive medical care or to get them to a place that’s not out in the middle of the desert.”
Border Patrol said the strobes can be seen from as far as 10 miles, giving the Tucson Sector 340 miles of visibility at night.
The beacons include pictorial instructions, as well as the same message in English, Spanish and Tohono O’odham: “If you need help, push the red button. Rescue Personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area.”
However, the recent legal cases criminalizing No More Deaths volunteers have cast a different type of light on the poles: How effective are they in preventing migrants from dying in the desert?
Federal authorities had charged four other No More Deaths volunteers – Caitlin Deighan, Zoe Anderson, Logan Hollarsmith and Rebecca Grossman-Richeimer – for leaving aid on the Cabeza Prieta refuge. Those charges were dropped in February.
A ninth volunteer, Scott Warren, is awaiting trial for both felony and misdemeanor charges of harboring and conspiracy related to humanitarian work for No More Deaths.
The slew of legal cases caused the group to create a legal campaign in support of the “Cabeza 9.” Batches of white signs reading “Humanitarian aid is never a crime” are scattered in yards, curbsides and windows across Tucson.
Warren’s trial on misdemeanor charges begins in May. Warren, who has taught as a faculty associate at Arizona State University, also may see the issue of rescue beacons raised in his case.
“When somebody hits this rescue beacon,” agent Curran said, “there’s a defined system in play that’s going to get that person the definitive care that they need, as opposed to water jugs and food caches that may just be prolonging a perilous journey.”
Border Patrol as a humanitarian force?
To demonstrate that it’s addressing migrants dying in the desert, Border Patrol relies heavily on the rescue beacons.
“The humanitarian aspect of what we do has been growing in our role as Border Patrol agents,” Curran said. “Sometimes we need to take off our Border Patrol hat and put on one that cares about whether this person lives or dies. That’s why these rescue beacons are here.”
However, No More Deaths volunteers argue that Border Patrol can’t be a humanitarian agency.
“There’s an international standard that the enforcement agency cannot also be the humanitarian response,” said Geena Jackson, a wilderness emergency medical technician who has volunteered with the group since 2012. “A rescue beacon is not a humanitarian response – it is first and foremost an enforcement tool.
“Border Patrol is not recognized as an effective humanitarian response by anyone except themselves.”
Jackson also noted that pushing the red button ends in the migrant’s apprehension.
“In the picture on the beacon, an unarmed character responds with a water gallon,” she said. “That isn’t accurate. An armed agent will respond, who is an enforcement agent first and foremost.”
“The first thing we’re going to do is evaluate that person medically, ask them if they’re OK, if they need water,” Curran said. “Then, if that person is deemed in good health, we’re going to process them through the immigration system the same way we would anybody else.”
Although the beacons clearly show how to activate them, it isn’t clear a government agency will respond.
Jackson said she often sees rescue beacons in her work in the desert and believes they are an inadequate response to the number of migrant deaths occurring.
“The efficacy of the beacons is grossly inadequate,” she said. “I have many, many anecdotes of people who have pressed the button at the beacon, and are sitting at the beacon and have been there anywhere from 20 minutes to two days, and are still waiting for a response.”
There are 10 active beacons in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, which covers 860,000 acres. That’s about one beacon every 135 square miles.
“There is no set time limit for any rescue beacon,” said Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez of the Tucson Sector. “The set time is as quick as humanly possible; we’re not going to endanger agents. Some of these rescue beacons are in extremely remote areas, and we have the best equipment to get to areas that are off the beaten path.”
No More Deaths said the data behind rescue beacons, and a lack of transparency regarding that data, further proves they’re ineffective.
A Department of Homeland Security report from fiscal 2015 breaks down the number of rescue-beacon activations and individuals rescued as a result by each sector of Border Patrol. In the Yuma Sector, two rescues and 1,161 activations were recorded. In fiscal 2016, the report stopped listing data related to rescue beacons.
“There’s very limited data that Border Patrol has published about rescue beacons. For a thousand activations of the beacons, there were only two rescues,” Jackson said. “The inadequacy, the lack of information, makes it very confusing to begin with. We’d like that same data for the Tucson Sector, especially the sector that we work in. They don’t record that data, or if they do, they won’t publicly publish it.”
Tucson Sector Border Patrol provided Cronkite News data showing the number of activations and resulting rescues from fiscal years 2015-18. In 2015, the Tucson Sector reported 146 activations that resulted in 225 rescues.
However, the DHS report for that same year said the Tucson Sector does not record the total number of rescue beacon activations, only the number of rescues that result from them.
“We record it ourselves, but it’s tracked electronically,” Hernandez said. “We know how many activations; we have to have a disposition for each activation. There’s some things we track here on a local level that DHS doesn’t track on a national level.”
The issue behind migrant deaths
Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner for Pima County, said migrant deaths in the desert have been a growing issue since 2000. The leading cause of death is exposure-related illness, such as “hypothermia, hyperthermia, heat exhaustion and dehydration,” he said.
Hess doesn’t have a direct answer to stopping the large numbers of migrant bodies sent to his office.
“Nobody knows the answers to these questions,” he said. “Certainly, there’s an attempt to prevent people from dying, and one way might be to provide them with necessities that they may have run out of, like safe food or water. Another would be this concept of having fixed beacons where people could seek assistance if they don’t have a cellphone.”
Border Patrol contends that water drops may actually endanger migrants who find them.
“What I hate to see is water jugs on these rescue beacons because it defeats the purpose of the rescue beacon,” Hernandez said. “If someone were to come across a rescue beacon, press that button and you get out of there. If they were to come across a water jug, well, they’re going to drink that and keep walking. What’s next? Where’s the next water jug?”
Curran, as a Border Patrol agent who also is an emergency medical technician, has access to such things as intravenous therapy to treat dehydration.
“I have rescued people at these rescue beacons who needed definitive care quickly,” he said, “and if they were to be anywhere else, if they would have grabbed a jug of water and kept walking, they probably would’ve died. That’s what we’re trying to prevent; that’s why (rescue beacons) are here.”
However, No More Deaths volunteers believe they are effectively addressing the issue of exposure.
“The idea that water in the desert encourages people to continue walking north takes away so much agency and does not line up with what our role is as an organization,” Jackson said. “It is lifesaving water for people already in a severely compromised medical state. And even if they’re not effective, they’re a response to the number one cause of death in this desert.”
Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, believes the deaths will decrease when the nation addresses the root issue of why migrants cross the border in the first place.
“Clearly, the ultimate answer is trying to address problems in regions of people are coming from so they don’t feel compelled to move,” he said.
As an initiative to reach potential border crossers in their countries of origin, Border Patrol circulates flyers telling of the true risk of death in the southern deserts of the United States. The twofold flyers also tell migrants about rescue beacons, referring to them as “La luz azul de vida” – The blue light of life.
“Most people have no idea what the true distances are,” Hernandez said. “So we do that to bring awareness to the rescue beacon itself, and also to the dangers the desert poses.”
In recent months, the number of migrants entering the United States, mainly from Central American countries, has increased steadily. The influx of migrants has strained Border Patrol efforts.
“The more agents on the ground I take for other efforts, like the Central American influx, it does take away from those rescue operations,” Hernandez said. “Our humanitarian efforts are definitely being addressed, but the size of the impact on other operations definitely is noticeable.”
Although Hernandez thinks Border Patrol provides the best humanitarian response with available resources, Jackson, of No More Deaths, said it underscores the agency’s inadequacy to aid migrants at risk of dying in the desert.
“By their own admission, Border Patrol clearly states that they are inadequately equipped, they are inept at providing appropriate medical responses to vulnerable populations. Anyone who’s been walking in the desert is compromised,” she said.
A history of friction
The tensions between Border Patrol and No More Deaths aren’t limited to arguing about rescue beacons.
In January 2018, No More Deaths released a report alleging that Border Patrol agents destroyed humanitarian aid left in the desert from 2010 to 2017. The report included several videos of the reported vandalism.
One video shows green-uniformed agents kicking over water jugs aligned neatly in a row. Another shows an agent dumping water onto the ground.
Border Patrol claims these were strictly isolated incidents.
“Several years ago,” Hernandez said, “we had some agents caught on film doing something that we wish they hadn’t done, which is destroying or moving some water jugs in the desert. Agents have been instructed since that point that we are not to touch anything in the desert. If somebody sees something or an agent doing something they’re not supposed to, they’re welcome to call the United States Border Patrol and address that with us.”
Given the extensiveness of the abuse documentation report No More Deaths released, the group doesn’t believe these were one-time occurrences.
“The idea that it’s a few rogue agents does not line up with the massive scale of destruction of humanitarian aid supplies,” Jackson said.
Hours after the videos were released in January 2018, Border Patrol arrested Scott Warren, the No More Deaths volunteer and ASU instructor, while conducting surveillance on a building near Ajo where No More Deaths conducts humanitarian work. The agency also arrested two undocumented immigrants who were with Warren.
Warren is charged with felony harboring and conspiracy, as well as separate misdemeanor charges stemming from his volunteer work on Cabeza Prieta.
Jackson said Warren’s attorneys have won a motion asserting that if the prosecution uses rescue beacons in its argument, it must provide the appropriate data to show the beacons are effective.
“If there is data to prove, then we’ll find out. If there’s not, then they can’t use that as an argument because it’s based on nothing,” she said.
No More Deaths said it won’t abandon humanitarian efforts despite the charges against its volunteers.
“We’re not stopping our work just because the government is trying to criminalize us,” Jackson said. “The need for humanitarian aid along the U.S.-Mexico border is massive; we are but one of many organizations that are trying to respond to that. While many, many people have died on these land jurisdictions this winter, many more people are probably going to die this summer. So we’re preparing for a really hot summer in an area that we have even less access to because of these cases.”