WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Jun 2013 | Commentary

Expanding the Number of Rescue Beacons at the Border Could Help Save Migrants in Distress

As the summer heat bears down on U.S. borderlands, Border Patrol agents are reporting a spike in migrant deaths, as well as an increase in migrants who were rescued before succumbing to dehydration and exposure. Border Patrol agents have repeatedly affirmed that rescue beacons save lives, allowing them to quickly locate a migrant in distress who has activated the beacon. Rescue beacons—transmission towers with an emergency button that, when activated, send out a distress signal allowing the Border Patrol to quickly locate the migrant—can be life savers for migrants lucky enough to come across one during their trek. However, an analysis of the number of beacons in sectors with high traffic and migrant deaths suggests that there aren’t nearly enough beacons to effectively cover these areas.

The Tucson sector, where the remains of 177 migrants were found last year, has 22 rescue beacons. This may sound like a lot until you take into account that the sector encompasses over 90,000 square miles. That’s about one beacon per 4,114 square miles, or one beacon for an area that’s bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. While it’s true that beacons are strategically placed in high traffic areas, the sector covers such a vast area and so many migrants cross through the sector that their effect remains minimal. As a recently released map of migrant deaths in Arizona illustrates, some migrant remains have been found clustered in certain areas but migrants have died throughout the sector and even in remote parts of the desert. The Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas, which saw migrant deaths double in 2012, now has six rescue beacons, roughly one beacon for every 3,097 square miles in terrain where migrants can easily become lost and disoriented in the brush with no mountains and other natural landmarks to guide them.

A near record number of migrants died in on the U.S. side of the border last year—463—and some Border Patrol agents believe that this year will no different. The immigration bill passed by the Senate on June 27 calls for the deployment of up to 1,000 additional beacons to mitigate migrant deaths. As this analysis illustrates, a dramatic expansion of rescue beacons in the sectors with high numbers of migrant deaths is sorely needed and it would be a cost-effective way to address this human tragedy on our border.

Sector Deaths in FY 2012 Rescues in FY 2012 Apprehensions in FY 2012 # of Rescue Beacons Terrain in sq. miles Beacon per sq. mile
Tucson 177 632 120,000 22 90,500 4,114
RG Valley 150 318 97,762 6 18,580 3,097
Laredo 90 290 48,872 4 88,460 22,115
Yuma 9 2 6,500 24 181,670 7,570