As southern Arizona boils under an excessive heat warning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection unveiled new training and equipment in an effort to save the lives of migrants stranded in the summer desert.
“The desert is unforgiving. The mountains are unforgiving. The human smuggling organizations are unforgiving. Illegally crossing in this area is a potentially deadly decision,” Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin said at a June 9 press conference in Tucson.
“Not enough migrants hear the truth about how dangerous our desert is or the fact our border is closed,” he added. “Some risk their lives anyway. Some will die as a result.”
Tucson Sector has reported 48 migrant deaths this fiscal year, as of the end of May. During fiscal year 2021, CBP reported a record 557 deaths along the southwest border, with most of those stricken by heat-related conditions.
“We take this situation very seriously whether through technology or by leveraging our many partnerships,” Modlin said. “We use every tool to ensure the safety of anyone crossing through Arizona’s treacherous desert.”
The chief patrol agent lauded the agency’s “unmatched” efforts to save lives, including the “heroic efforts of our agents” who at times risk their own safety in the process.
“While we perform rescues around the clock throughout the year, the summer months are exceptionally dangerous,” Modlin said. “Temperatures in southern Arizona will exceed an intense 110 degrees … heat exhaustion and heat stroke in the desert are highly probable. For a migrant wandering our remote mountains and valleys potentially abandoned, exposed to the sun, running out of water, they are a certainty. We do all we can to mitigate this potentially tragic scenario.”
In collaboration with Tucson Border Patrol Sector, hundreds of agents from Three Points Station and Casa Grande Station will be provided with new Heat Stress Kits/Go-Bags; the use of the kits in the field will be studied before determining how these measures could be extended along the full southwest border.
“These stations were chosen for the rollout of this new tool due to the high number of heat-related migrant deaths in their areas in recent years,” Modlin said.
The kits contain electrolyte packets, instant cold packs, cooling towels, sunscreen, and disposable emergency blankets for creating shade. These supplies are in addition to the first-aid kits and water already carried by agents. More than 230 Tucson Sector agents are also EMTs, and some of the trained paramedics carry additional supplies including IVs for severely dehydrated patients.
“These kits are easy to carry and their items can be quickly administered,” Modlin said. “They’re designed to support immediate live-saving measures. Though simple, they can be enough to support a desperate individual until more advanced help can arrive.”
Through May of this fiscal year Tucson agents have performed 2,192 rescues. CBP Air and Marine Operations and Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) are often needed to rescue migrants from remote locations.
“We do everything we can to ensure every migrant who needs help gets it, but the fact of the matter remains: in temperatures over 100 degrees, if you’re without water, food, or shelter, you’re a statistic waiting to happen,” Modlin warned.
Assistant Chief William Beltran of the Strategic Planning and Analysis Directorate said the kit “is an intermediate tool… a single piece of a layered approach to save lives.” Those layers include training and resources, emergency response planning, technology including rescue beacons, 911 placards, and more.
“The safety and health of the workforce and others we encounter in the field is a top priority for U.S. Border Patrol,” Beltran said. “As a result, we’re constantly working with external and internal stakeholders to improve our humanitarian mission and to continue to save lives out in the desert.”
CBP also announced mandatory annual Recognition of Medical Distress Training for all CBP operational employees of the U.S. Border Patrol, Office of Field Operations, and Air and Marine Operations.
Office of the Chief Medical Officer Assistant Chief Gerry Carrasco stressed that CBP has “significantly expanded” its medical efforts along the southwest border, including ensuring in-depth training for the agency’s EMTs and paramedics along with contracted medical personnel.
“We also know that due to evolving dynamic operational situations our frontline agents and officers are increasingly confronted with medical issues in the field and at CBP facilities,” Carrasco said. “To address this, CBP is fielding a training course in the recognition of medical distress directed at frontline agents and officers.”
The training — focusing on recognizing red flags, response, and referring to further treatment when necessary — was developed by CBP’s Office of the Chief Medical Officer “with significant consultation with subject matter experts,” he said.
“The training will provide agents and officers with the knowledge to properly address medical distress in persons in custody, and persons that we encounter on daily operations,” Carrasco said.
CBP said that the course will cover topics such as the recognition of medical distress, trauma-informed care principles (awareness and training, medical support, holding processes), and an overview of the roles and responsibilities of the CBP medical support system.
“If you’re someone thinking of illegally crossing our border, especially during the months of intense summer heat, reconsider. Our borders are closed,” Modlin said. “If you cross illegally, you will be subject to border restrictions including expulsion. If you are traveling with family or children, you are putting all of your lives at unnecessary risk. The journey is severe. Not all who wander into our desert will be saved despite the very best of our lifesaving efforts.”