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Border Patrol trying to reduce deaths in the desert

Posted at 9:42 PM, May 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-08 08:18:32-04

The Tucson Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol is trying to do what it can to reduce the amount of migrants that die in the desert while attempting to cross the border illegally. In 2016, Border Patrol reports finding 84 bodies in the Tucson Sector alone, and expect there were more than that. 

So -- they hosted their annual "Border Safety Initiative," aimed at demonstrating the dangerous conditions migrants face when crossing illegally as a way to educate people about border safety.

"I want you guys to experience the heat, the dryness, the thirst that's going to take over. You're kind of putting yourself in the feet, or the shoes -- if you will -- of a migrant."

That's how Acting Special Operations Supervisor Steven Passement began the initiative. Speaking to a group filled with non-profit members, media members, border patrol members, and various others, he was preparing the group for a three mile hike. It started at the international boundary, and would snake through desert.

Passement explained the border isn't what it used to be. Now, many of the illegal immigration operations are run by criminal smuggling groups.

"Unfortunately, you're looking at a criminal organization that has no loyalty," he said. "They don't have the migrants interests at heart. They look at them as cattle. If one falls behind, they'll leave them."

He says people trust these groups to get them across the border safely without knowing the dangers of crossing it illegally -- both natural dangers and dangers stemming from the group.

"The migrants are going to put their hands -- their lives -- in the hands of a smuggler," Passement said. "That smuggler is going to dictate their welfare, where they're going to cross, how they're going to cross. They will nickel and dime them."

Jose Genis was one of the people on the hike, representing a non-profit organization called Aguilas del Desierto. He and the other members of the organization search the border deserts -- from Arizona to California -- for bodies of migrants who died while trying to cross. The goal is to help bring closure to their families.

"What a lot of the migrants don't realize is when they come through the desert, they come unprepared," he said.

He and his partners would know, as they experience the conditions themselves while they search for bodies.

"A lot of the migrants fall down due to dehydration," Genis said. "Some end up falling due to heat exhaustion, heat stroke."

Addressing the group and members of a few Central American consulates, Acting Chief Patrol Agent Felix Chavez didn't sugarcoat it.

"The desert will not show any mercy on those unprepared for it's remote, harsh, and inhospitable weather," Chavez said. "The desert does not care if you're a loving father, a loving mother, a child. When you're lost in the desert, death can come quickly."

The reason?

"Far too often, our Border Patrol agents discover the remains of individuals who either did not know of the dangers," he continued. "Or did not heed the warnings."

Though Chavez and Genis come from different backgrounds and different organizations, they say they share a common goal: reduce the amount of migrant deaths in the desert.

"By working together we can focus our resources and capabilities on the important issues of mutual concern," Chavez said. "That is the safe, humane, and dignified treatment of people -- essentially saving lives."

Genis described it as a crisis that many organizations are ignoring.

"They're helping us out to kind of, bridge a gap, so we can have organizations communicating with each other," Genis said. "And hopefully, bring some closure to some families."

Passement explained he believes the dangers of crossing the border illegally actually start in Mexico, from the moment someone makes the decision to join up with a smuggling group.

"What we want to do is make a conscious effort of letting people know the dangers -- the border has changed," he said. "Don't risk your life in the hands of a smuggler. Don't put your families lives in the hands of a smuggler."

Safety, he said, is his main concern, and one death out there -- whatever the cause, is too many.

His plea, and his warning:

"If they're going to come, please come legally," Passement said. "But if you're going to come, at least come informed if you're going to come illegally."

Border Patrol currently has 34 different rescue beacons located in the desert between the Yuma County line and Three Points. These beacons are placed throughout the desert in areas that are frequently traveled. They're pleading with people to use them if they need help -- pressing a button will alert an agent to come to that location as quickly as possible.