Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
Lorraine Rivera, Arizona Public Media
Lorraine Rivera, Arizona Public Media
The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border have climbed steadily this year. In May alone, border agents reported more than 180,0000 encounters with migrants. Lorraine Rivera of Arizona Public Media reports from the ground with U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a sweep of the Sonoran Desert.
The number of apprehensions at the U.S./Mexico border have climbed steadily this year. In May alone, agents documented more than 180,000 encounters with migrants.
Lorraine Rivera of Arizona Public Media spent a day recently with Customs and Border Patrol on the ground and in the air during a sweep of the Sonoran Desert.
OK, it's 39 miles away. It's going to take us about 22 minutes to get there.
Jack Painter is an air interdiction agent with Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations. Today, he's been directed to help locate a group of four people walking in the desert a few miles north of the border northwest of Nogales.
Looks like an agent down in the cut right there.
I have got bodies right in front of me, right in front of me here.
When we arrive, we find the group wearing camouflage, hiding under the trees. Two agents take the group into custody, place them in handcuffs and walk them out of the canyon.
I got them all cuffed up. I'm going to stand by for my partner here.
OK, sounds good. Great job.
With this assignment complete, we are on to the next call.
I will just be putting the coordinates in real quick.
Painter coordinates with operators in Tucson and agents below him.
OK, this is going to be actually right close to the border.
A group of eight also in camouflage. As the helicopter nears, the group scatters. They're hard to spot from the air. Other agents on foot arrive as well as agents on horseback.
I think they're pretty well told when the helicopter is in the area, just don't move, because that really gives away their position.
Three of the eight are located and arrested. The five others were last seen headed back toward Mexico.
But helping locate migrants is not the only mission for the CBP air unit. Pilots respond to requests for emergency aid, too. On the Tohono O'odham Nation, a man has called for help using WhatsApp on his phone.
He's a good 20 miles north of the border. So, he could have easily been one — maybe on his second or even third day.
Yes, hey, we have got the 911 caller in sight. He's standing right now, but looks a little dizzy.
With no easy place to land and low on fuel, Painter can't offer immediate help, but he's marked coordinates so paramedics on the ground can find him more easily.
We're going to have to break off for fuel, but just want to let you know that he is in the coordinates.
Over the Altar Valley, we see the vastness of the Sonoran Desert. During the summer, conditions can be deadly. In the first few weeks of June, the Pima County medical examiner recorded 29 migrant deaths. Hours after our flight, we learn that the 911 caller died, a 35-year-old man from Honduras.
His call had come into the Air Coordination Center…
OK, go ahead with the coordinates.
… which links CBP partners alongside other federal, local and state agencies.
All the dots are agents, actually. We color-code them.
Ryan Riccucci serves as the acting director. His team manages calls placed along the Arizona-Mexico border, overseeing calls from cell towers and imagery off of surveillance systems.
So, we have a decision support system, so that, when a call comes in, it's, where's the call? What condition are they in? Is it a rescue? Do they have battery life? Is it urgent? What capabilities are up?
And then we have to do the pilot calculus, I call it, figuring out, that bird, how much flight time does it have left? How long is it going to take to get to the area? Because we don't want to send a bird to go somewhere just to turn around.
Every agent in the field has a smartphone connected to what's known as the team awareness kit. The network expanded this past April, giving everyone in this room and in the field a clear enough picture to send support where it's needed.
Are they, like, just on the other side of it?
Yes, they're on top of it.
Improved technology, though, isn't always enough to save people from the deadly elements in the desert, as shown with the Honduran man who died.
And I would say this is the worst-case scenario of where the team did the best they could with what they had. So the call comes in, and it's immediate. Do you have coordination? Do you have coordinates? No.
So that means you have 100,000 square meters to try to figure out. The person on the phone wasn't quite lucid, so they weren't able to give good information about where they were, what does the mountain look like.
That's where aircraft comes in yet again. This Air and Marine fleet is the largest and busiest in the country, logging more than 10,000 flight hours every year.
This is also where Customs and Border Protection sends all of its Black Hawk helicopters for maintenance. Director Mike Montgomery says surveillance systems aboard helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have saved countless lives over the years.
Anywhere along that corridor we could be called to. So we need the speed. The terrain is terrible.
So, some of those areas where Border Patrol agents work, it takes them an hour-and-a-half, sometimes two hours just to get to their place where they need to start working.
From here, I can be an Ajo in 45 minutes and I can be in the Bootheel of Douglas about the same amount of time.
Back on the ground, agent Jesus Vasavilbaso drives us along the newly constructed border wall near the town of Sasabe. A man appears along the fence line.
So he wants some water?
The man agrees to talk to us, as long as we don't show his face. He says he's 38 years old and from the state of Guadalajara. He tells me the smugglers stole his phone and most of his money. Vasavilbaso translates.
There were a group of ten. And they paid them $1,000. But he heard a helicopter and took off before they even crossed the border. So, he's trying to get some — trying to walk to the town, to the town of Sasabe, to try and get some help and try to go back home.
So, he said that it's not very manly for the coyote to leave him behind, and that's he not going to attempt to come again.
On the ground and in the air, one day with Tucson Sector offers a snapshot into the latest surge along the Southern border.
For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Lorraine Rivera along the U.S./Mexico border.
Watch the Full Episode
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Additional Support Provided By: