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911 dispatchers take desperate calls from migrants in an unforgiving desert

This summer the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office began to erect crosses marked with GPS coordinates in the places where bodies are discovered in the desert.
This summer the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office began to erect crosses marked with GPS coordinates in the places where bodies are discovered in the desert.
Courtesy of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office

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This past year, the number of migrants that have been rescued trying to cross the border there has spiked. From the Fronteras Desk in Phoenix, Jude Joffe-Block has this report on what it's like to answer those 9-1-1 calls.

The Arizona desert is a killer.

Every year it claims the lives of migrants who cross the border illegally and try to make their way north. In the past year, the number of migrants rescued by the U.S. Border Patrol grew, according to recently released data.

That’s despite the fact that the number of people apprehended while crossing the Arizona border illegally has been falling in recent years and has basically flatlined relative to last year.

911 dispatchers say most calls from migrants typically begin the same way: I’m lost in the desert and I haven’t had water in days.

The callers are usually Spanish speakers, and their phone reception can be poor.

One man, who said his name was Joel, called for help in the middle of a June day when the temperature was in the triple digits with this message:

“We are dying,” he said in a quick, panicked voice in Spanish. “We need help.”

Because of his location, his call was answered by a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, who looped in a Border Patrol agent. 

The two agencies frequently work in coordination to rescue migrants. But the geography of the cell phone towers and the kind of phones migrants typically use make it hard to precisely trace their location. 

Joel couldn’t see any identifying landmarks near him, either.

He said he just saw low hills made of rock. 

Michelle Busch, a 911 dispatcher for Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said that’s typical.

“North, south, east, west, they are like, have no clue,” Busch said. “[They say] ‘all I see is mountains.’”

Busch works in Phoenix, far from the border, but has fielded plenty of these calls. 

Some migrants, in an effort to avoid Border Patrol checkpoints, walk for long stretches through the Arizona desert. For many, their destination is the the east-west artery, Interstate 8, which is some 80 miles north of the border. 

But too often they become dehydrated or fall victim to heat stroke first. It’s not uncommon for them to call for help when they are just south of the highway, in the area near Gila Bend in the southwestern portion of Maricopa County.

“I don't intend to ask, 'Are you an illegal?' or 'Were you dropped there,'” Busch said. “My job is to find out where they are.”

Rescue missions can take hours and can cost thousands of dollars. 

Last fiscal year, Maricopa County spent at least $100,000 on official search and rescue missions, with $85,242 reimbursed by Arizona’s Division of Emergency Management.

The Sheriff’s Office has only just started to track what portion of that is used on migrant rescues.

One reason migrants are able to make these calls is because of expanding cell phone coverage in remote parts of the desert. 

Busch said they typically are using phones that are not activated to make regular calls.

“It can only dial 911,” Busch said. “It can’t receive in calls, or they can’t make out calls.”

This summer, Busch’s agency rescued more than 30 people in the southwestern part of the county, south of I-8. 

Newly released stats from Border Patrol show the number of migrant rescues in the state in the first eleven months of the last fiscal year was 20 percent higher than in 2012, and 50 percent higher than in 2011.

There are also indications that the portion of migrants who die in the desert relative to the number who cross is growing. One explanation for the trend may be that migrants are now be walking longer distances to avoid detection, making the journey riskier. Furthermore, this past summer one of the hottest on record in parts of Arizona.

That same day in June when the migrant named Joel called for help, Busch got a call from another group a little while later.

They were already sick and passing out from the heat. Busch had to give one man in his early 20s named Heliberto a pep talk.

“Listen to me,” Busch said. “I know you think you can’t make it, that you are in bad shape.” 

She went on to promise them that she wouldn't fail them, that she was sending a helicopter. 

“Do they know where we are?” Heliberto asked. “Do you swear to me?” 

Busch gave her word.

“I thank you with all my heart,” Heliberto said.

Yet when the helicopter got to the area, it located a different group of lost border crossers and rescued them first. 

One of the men called Busch back desperate, convinced he was going to die there.

“He wanted to give me numbers, addresses, his wife’s name, his kids',” Busch said. “And I’m like, no, that is not what I do. I am not going to do that because you are going to survive.”

Busch does check see what happens at the end of a rescue, after she is no longer on the phone. 

That particular rescue took more than seven hours, and ultimately wound up locating over a dozen migrants who had called for help.

“They did make it to Border Patrol,” Busch said. “They got medical help. And from there, you know, I’m sure they were taken back. But they all made it. Thankfully.”

Not everyone does. 

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office recovered 17 bodies in the same area this summer. Border Patrol discovered more than 160 bodies in Arizona in the first eleven months of the past fiscal year. 

Meanwhile, the calls for help continue.

Just this week, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatchers took in another call for a rescue south of I-8.