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Safety beacons near border help migrants in distress, border officials say

Posted at 4:33 AM, Nov 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-12 08:37:18-05

Satellite-connected beacons along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona have led to the rescue of around 1,100 people since their launch, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

The beacons were first deployed in the late 1990s and more have been added over time. There are now 34 beacons situated in remote, desert locations near the border to help when those who are injured or stranded need help.

"A common theme we've seen from people who hit these rescue beacons is that they're being left behind by their group," said border patrol spokesman Agent Joe Curran. "These smugglers, they don't care about the people who are in the group, they just care about getting paid," he told ABC15. "If somebody can't keep up, it's of no mind to them. They simply leave them behind."

From January through August of this year, Curran said the beacons helped rescue 120 people. They are between 30 and 40 feet tall, solar powered and many are equipped with satellite phones and cameras. At night, a blue strobe light on top of the beacons can be seen up to ten miles away. Instructions are written in English, Spanish, the Tohono O'odham language, and are displayed in pictographs.

"If we didn't have this infrastructure out here, there's no way of knowing what would've happened to these people," Curran said.

The beacons can be moved to different locations as smuggling, human trafficking and immigration routes shift. Curran said while officer safety is always the top priority, caring for individuals who trigger the beacons is an agent's first responsibility in these situations.

"We're going to make sure that these people, medically, are where they need to be," he said. "If they need water, we have water to provide them. If they need food, we're going to get that as quickly as possible. I've seen plenty of agents give illegal aliens the food out of their lunchbox," adding that making sure a rescuee is in a stable and healthy condition takes precedence over any potential detainment or criminal prosecution.

While Curran said an agent's primary duty is to secure the U.S. border, providing medical treatment and humanitarian aid has increasingly become part of their day-to-day responsibilities. The border patrol's Tucson sector, responsible for most of the country's border in Arizona, employs more than 200 agents who are trained as emergency medical technicians and 20 paramedics.

The agency provided the following statistics for people who have been rescued using the beacons since 2011:

  • 2011 - 14 people
  • 2012 - 64 people
  • 2013 - 41 people
  • 2014 - 61 people
  • 2015 - 225 people
  • 2016 - 364 people
  • 2017 - 147 people
  • 2018 - 158 people
  • 2019 (January through August) - 120 people