Cell Service as Salvation?

Border-rescue groups say desert cell phone towers could save lives

As one of the hottest summers on record comes to an end, the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office--its morgue filled to capacity--continues to use the extra storage of a refrigerated trailer to hold the bodies of some border crossers who did not survive the sweltering heat. Many of those deaths, according to local humanitarian group Humane Borders, could have been prevented, if migrants had a better way of calling for help.

Years after Humane Borders, along with its California-based counterpart organization Water Stations Inc., began constructing water stations along migrant paths in the desert, they have proposed another way to help cut down on the number of deaths in the desert: building more cell phone towers.

Although one might not think most illegal entrants, fleeing poverty, would be armed with cell phones, Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, said volunteers with Humane Borders and other humanitarian groups frequently find cell phones, batteries, phone cards and chargers in the desert.

However, getting cell phone service in rural areas along the Arizona-Mexico border, where few towers offer reception, can make a 911 call next to impossible, Hoover said. Having a cell phone signal when you are lost in the sweltering heat can make the difference between life and death.

Humane Borders and Water Stations Inc. sent a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security this summer that calls for the construction of 15 cell phone towers in Arizona, and three in California, in areas where the most migrant deaths occur.

"Even if you could have half as many towers in place in critical areas, it might make a dramatic difference in the number of deaths," Hoover said.

In Arizona, towers are needed most in areas of the western desert and the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, Hoover said.

As of mid-September, the Border Patrol had recorded 199 deaths this fiscal year in its Tucson sector, which includes all of Arizona, except Yuma and an area in the far west part of the state. That number is well more than the 141 deaths recorded in the 2004 fiscal year.

The rise in deaths comes as increased surveillance and enforcement efforts at the border force crossers to take more dangerous routes to avoid apprehension, said Gustavo Soto, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

"The smugglers have resorted to taking these people to the extremes of the desert and abandoning them," Soto said. "They are being extremely ruthless this year."

For some of those abandoned, a cell phone has been the only thing that saved their lives.

BORSTAR--the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Team--has carried out 850 rescues this year, compared to 560 last year, Soto said. And of those 850, 386 were a direct result of 38 cell phone calls made to 911 and directed to BORSTAR.

Hoover said more cell phone towers could lead to even more successful rescues.

However, Soto said that while installing more cell phone towers could allow more rescues, he worries it could also give illegal entrants a false sense of security.

"We don't want to give them a false sense of hope that they can cross, because there are cell phone towers out there," he said. "We just don't want them to cross. It's too dangerous."

Migrant deaths created problems for the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office this summer, and even though the office more than doubled its body storage capacity from 50 to 120 in the past year, it still wasn't enough to handle the number of illegal entrant deaths, most of which occurred in July.

For the first time ever, the office had to bring in a refrigerated semi-trailer with a 60- to 70-body capacity for use as temporary morgue.

The trailer remains in use, costing the county $1,000 a week to rent, but Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Eric Peters said the office will likely purchase its own trailer to be used indefinitely.

Hoover said rising death tolls do not reflect well on the government.

"We've got a lot of stakeholders in this thing, and county and city governments are going to want to cut down on the number of bodies stacking up," Hoover said.

Although it's too early to know the cost of building additional cell phone towers or who would foot the bill, Hoover said the Department of Homeland Security and Pima County are the biggest stakeholders, and he said the benefits would far outweigh the costs.

In addition to reducing the amount of migrant deaths, Hoover said wider cell phone coverage would also give added protection to Border Patrol agents and recreational travelers in desert areas.

"Usually, five to 10 Americans die in the desert every year, too," he noted.

Likely opponents to the proposed towers include environmentalists, who worry cell phone towers will interfere with the flight paths of migratory birds, but Hoover is confident towers can be placed in locations where they would not create problems.

Hoover said he is also prepared to hear concerns that towers are an eyesore or that they would be inviting illegal entrants to come across--an oft-stated complaint when water stations began surfacing in the desert.

Yet, Hoover said the most common response he has gotten from people who hear the proposal has been: "Why hasn't anybody thought of this before?"

Hoover said he would like to see the new towers in place by next summer, and he also wants public education programs in Mexico to advise people not to cross without a cell phone.

Hoover insists putting up more cell phone towers will not open the door for more illegal entrants to cross, but it could save some lives.

"They're already coming," Hoover said. "The invitation is a job, not a cell phone tower."

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