Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights 2020

Sunday, May 15, 2011

SONORAN DESERT: New Satellite-Based Migrant Rescue Initiative


President Obama has declared that the border is safer now than it has been for a long, long time. For whom? Certainly not for migrants in our deserts. May 23 is the 10th anniversary of the deaths of fourteen migrants in one day, a story that was set to prose in The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea. What was not memorialized in his book was the continuing efforts of faith based groups, human rights activists, and members of the general public to mitigate the damage caused by this and previous administrations under the guise of national security, stabilization of labor, and efforts to reduce the amount of noise on the border.

Groups have set up water stations. Rescue beacons were invented and deployed by the Border Patrol. Volunteer paramedics were sought among the ranks of the Border Patrol. Groups set out nearly daily to find migrants in distress. Warning posters, public service announcements, and many other things have been tried. All are successful to some extent.

Still, though, the numbers of dead migrants continue to rise. Over the last decade, more than 2,000 migrants are known to have died just in Arizona according to county medical examiner data. Last year, we counted more than 250 deaths just in southern Arizona. When that is held up to the light of the fact that far fewer migrants are crossing, we can see that the rate of migrant deaths has increased dramatically.

The US has three strategies for migrants. The first is to make it physically difficult to cross the border. The results of this strategy is to destroy large areas of the environment and to encourage migrants to walk in more difficult terrain which leads predictably to more deaths. The second is to make it very expensive. This drives up the cost of the coyotes (human smugglers) and, in turn, systematically transfers billions of dollars into the hands of the cartels. More migrants predictably die when they are turned into commodities in this way. Finally, the strategy is to push migrants to the margins of the desert. In southern Arizona, this means that the migrants walk farther and farther each year from the safer lower parts of the valleys into the more corrugated, difficult terrains. This leads predictably to more deaths.

Many of us have worked together for more than six years to promote increased cell phone coverage, especially 911 emergency call capabilities. It turns out that more than half of all of the Border Patrol rescues are self-initiated by migrants using cell phones to call when they are in distress. The administration has feigned interest in working with us and with Pima County Government on increasing the scope of 911 cell coverage. But, that, too, has come to a halt. We can only conclude that after a decade of trying to save lives and to work cooperatively with the government that the death of migrants is an intentional element of the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to deter migration.

A few of us have begun a new migrant safety initiative called Rescatame! which means Rescue Me. We've made it aware than anyone, anywhere can purchase a satellite based personal location beacon and use it to save lives. A handful of the small cellphone sized devices are being circulated in Altar, Sonora, Mexico to be used by persons who guide migrants in the desert. Older women in the community who are active in their congregation, who volunteer in the migrant shelter in Altar, and who know the young men who guide groups in the desert are distributing the devices with the moral instructions to use them only in an emergency but to definitely use them in an emergency. When a guide returns, he turns in the device, and it is re-issued to the next person/group going. In an emergency, the guide can activate the device which finds out where it is by using GPS. The PLB then transmits a signal to a NOAA National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite. That satellite beams the rescue signal and the location of the migrants to a national office where someone initiates a search and rescue mission. In most cases, it is the nearest county sheriff’s office that is the responding authority. This works, then, like a satellite-based 911 system that can be used anywhere in the desert regardless of whether or not there is cell phone coverage. More about these devices can be found at They are part of an international 406 Rescue System It is our hope that one arm of the government will finally do what another has refused to do: save lives.

For more information, you can:
Contact Rev. Robin Hoover, Ph.D. at 520-360-7818
Go to
Watch a YouTube video on website.

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