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Migrants at risk as record-breaking heat impacts Arizona

Posted at 12:43 PM, Jun 19, 2021

SASABE, AZ — Dangerously hot temperatures are being felt across Arizona, including border areas, and experts say migrants and their children are at a higher risk of dying from heat exposure, severe dehydration, and hyperthermia.

“The terrain is extreme. The temperatures can be really high up to 115 degrees,” said U.S. border patrol agent, Jesus Vasavilbaso.

Agent Vasavilbaso has been patrolling the area of Sasabe, in the Tucson sector, for more than 10 years. He says the summers here are deadly.

“You have to drink approximately two gallons of water a day to be able to go hiking in this Sonoran Desert,” he said.

Migrants usually can’t carry that much water, “Once you cross a border, you still have to walk many miles and this terrain is unforgiving,” stated Vasavilbaso.

Unlike other years, migrants are crossing without a guide, instead, they are using apps like WhatsApp.

“They give them a cell phone. They tell them to walk a certain distance and that when you walk over to these peaks, you're going to call this number, and then they're going to tell you where to go.”

What they don't tell them is that there's no cellphone reception out in the desert.

Vasavilbaso advises that if they do get reception, to call 9-1-1. But if not, their only resource is finding one of the 34 rescue beacons installed through the Tucson sector.

“The way this (rescue beacon) works, it has this red button so if you push this red button, it will send a signal to our office and the agents can deploy and rescue that person.”

But, not everyone makes it. According to a report by the University of Arizona, there's been an increasing number of remains recovered in southern Arizona.

“209 (remains) according to our data from 2020. I'm very concerned that we're going to see record breaking number of undocumented border-crossers' remains recovered from southern Arizona in fiscal year 2021,” stated Daniel Martinez, the co-director of the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona.

Agent Vasavilbaso worries about migrants being directed to more remote areas and to higher elevations.

“We're human beings, we don't want anybody to get hurt, nonetheless we don't want anybody to die out here.”

He says sometimes migrants are told to not worry that helicopters will rescue them, but the reality is different.

“We don't have unlimited helicopters, we have sometimes 10, 20 calls at the same time, people calling 9-1-1,” stated Vasavilbaso.

Extreme high temperatures also make it more difficult for helicopters to take off which makes air rescues extremely risky for everyone involved.

“We can't walk in their shoes. We don't know what they're going through.

A lot of these migrants are economic migrants and they're trying to look for a better life but risking your life in these temperatures and in these terrains, is not worth it,” Vasavilbaso added.

But for many migrants, risking their life here in the desert is already a better option because they say back in their countries they're already dead.

“We can't live in peace. Death is what awaits in our country and if they send us back to Mexico again, the mafia. We have no choice,” said a Salvadoran family who was seeking asylum.

ABC15 interviewed the family as they turned themselves in to border patrol agents to request asylum.

“I was raped, but the police won't do anything. I was fearful for my son. I don't care if they hurt me, but not my son,” said the asylum-seeking mother.

They told ABC15 this was their second attempt to request asylum.

They said they first tried to request asylum in Nogales without a human smuggler but were expelled back to Mexico under Title-42.

“We ended up in a town called Altar, but the cartel there noticed we were undocumented and told us we had to pay a fee to cross.”

They say teenagers hired by the Mexican cartel guided them in the Mexican side but then abandoned them. So, they walked through desolated areas in the Sonoran Desert for ten hours, unaware of the dangerous heat, until they reached the Arizona-Sonora border.

“This was a surprise, this has been really hard,” said the asylum-seeking mother.

For agent Vasavilbaso, “sometimes it's too late. Sometimes, not everybody makes it, and it's very unfortunate that people keep trying, and they keep trying, no matter how many times they hear it, they keep trying.”