Friend or Foe

The Border Patrol embraces a humanitarian role.

Troy Newman is half cop, half angel of mercy. And the combination makes him one holy terror behind the wheel.

Today he's careening among saguaros and mesquite trees on a desert back road, the first-aid gear in his Border Patrol truck bouncing like rattled bones. He roars into a clearing and skids to a stop where four illegal immigrants were just found, dehydrated and lost near Sells, on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation west of Tucson.

The radio cackles that one among them is unconscious from the scorching summer heat. "These calls get my adrenaline running--you never know what you're going to find," the specially trained rescue agent says, racing his emergency equipment over to the traveler clinging to life amid a tangle of ambulance paramedics and cactus.

Out here, dull immigration body-counts veer into sharp reality with abrupt, brutal fury: Twenty-four-year-old Lucian Gomez from Chiapas, Mexico, convulses madly on a gurney, his chest heaving like a draft horse, his eyes tormented marbles spun back in their sockets.

Gomez has been stripped down to black bikini briefs, and his mouth gapes obscenely. His feet are a raw, purple patchwork of enormous blisters, now turned to the sun as medics frantically carpet him in ice, trying to cool a body steadily roasting at 109 degrees.

"We think he's been at that temp for a while, at least a couple of hours," says one of the medics.

"Yeah, and he's definitely in renal failure. We're not sure he's gonna make it," says a second medic. Newman helps the pair jam a breathing tube down the man's throat, after first removing a flat device meant to keep him from swallowing his own swollen tongue.

"Even if he does live," the second medic says, "there's going to be permanent damage. Basically, this guy's brain is cooking itself."

Amid the chaos, Gomez' right arm slips from the gurney. It flashes the discordantly serene tattoo of a delicately pierced heart, and a single word, "Amor."

Love in some other life, far from here.

Nearby, the short, stocky, anguished father of Lucian Gomez stumbles about the bone-dry clearing, mumbling to himself, and to the assembling crowd of tribal police, Border Patrol agents, ambulance drivers and helicopter pilots. A beige Raiders cap clings precariously to his head, and his faded T-shirt reads "Natural Designs Landscaping," followed by an out-of-state telephone number. His face is crimson from sunburn.

"Is my son alive?" he keeps asking in Spanish, to anyone who ventures close. But his voice, already nearly incoherent, is completely lost in the sudden, dusty din of a helicopter taking his boy to St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson.

As the chopper disappears, a red-faced Border Patrol agent is squaring off with a tribal cop, a young Anglo guy with bristling, cropped hair.

"You're more worried about your lunch box than getting this guy out of here," the cop tells the agent.

"What the hell are you doing looking in my vehicle?" the agent growls back. "You do your job, I'll do mine."

Soon everyone knows that Lucian Gomez lost his bowels all over the agent's lunch cooler, and a dank odor wafts across the clearing.

It's gonna be a long day.

The angry Border Patrol agent grabs some disinfectant, and stomps away to clean up the mess. Troy Newman does a quick bit of paperwork, and starts packing first-aid gear back into his white and green truck.

"We never know what we're going to find," he repeats, closing the tailgate. "We never know until we actually get out here and evaluate the situation. But obviously, this guy's in bad shape."

He jumps back into the truck, and turns up the dispatch radio. Brief staccato voices shoot from the black box, as he listens and waits for the next crisis.

AN E.M.T. WITH THE BORDER Patrol's Search, Trauma and Rescue team, or BORSTAR, Newman symbolizes the agency's recent humanitarian thrust, in the face of illegal-alien deaths that topped 400 last year. The effort is meant to save lives, and to quiet critics of Border Patrol strategies that focus massive manpower on border cities like Nogales and Douglas, driving immigrants into remote, often deadly desert areas.

Immigrant advocates are very skeptical of the agency's twin roles, as embodied in agents like Troy Newman. "I believe all these efforts are just an exercise in politics," says Tucson attorney Isabel Garcia, a leader of the human rights group Derechos Humanos. "It's an attempt to make the American public believe there's something being done to save people. But it's just a Band-Aid. Border Patrol officials knows full well what their policies are doing to people."

To Tucson Sector Chief David Aguilar, however, rescue efforts such as BORSTAR fit hand-in-glove with the Border Patrol's traditional law enforcement mission. "Deaths have been occurring along the border for many, many years," he says. "The most active manner in which emergencies can be kept from occurring out there is by increasing our enforcement efforts along the border ... specifically in areas that are heavily traversed by illegal immigrants.

"That's really the basis of our approach. We want to increase our density and enforcement coverage to the point that it actually minimizes the amount of people who get themselves into trouble."

He adds that BORSTAR "is a more formalized approach to what we have done historically ... to respond to needs of people traversing the border."

The BORSTAR program is a work in progress, with about 50 E.M.T.s monitoring 281 miles of border in the Tucson Sector, and a similar force in San Diego.

It's an outgrowth of the 1998 Border Safety Initiative, an Immigration and Naturalization Service policy to "make the border safer for migrants, officers and border residents," according to department documents. This includes hotlines for concerned relatives of immigrants, educating would-be border crossers about the risks they face, and increasing rescue coordination with Mexican federal officials.

The Border Safety Initiative "took hold in 1998 when there was a determination made by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol ... to get a good understanding of what was occurring along our nation's borders," Aguilar says.

Under the plan, the Tucson Sector is expanding its fleet of surveillance airplanes and helicopters to 12, and added about 75 agents to its summertime staff, along with enhanced electronic communication and mapping capabilities.

Border Patrol agents are learning advanced first-aid skills, and all vehicles will be equipped with emergency supplies such as extra water, rehydrating fluids and medical kits. The agency also continues schooling new BORSTAR agents in sophisticated rescue techniques.

"The training is extensive," says Troy Newman. "We're trained in rappelling, even in water rescue. People say 'Why water rescue in the desert?' But we find UDAs [undocumented aliens] trapped in washes."

BORSTAR agents will soon be rappelling from the belly of a "Super-Huey" helicopter. When the big chopper arrives, "We'll be able to make more rescues in difficult terrain," Newman says.

In addition, both the United States and Mexico have ratcheted up surveillance of a high-risk zone along the border's most rugged stretches. Patrols in those areas will increase every time the temperature reaches 100 degrees.

But the success of these efforts remains unclear: Through June of the current fiscal year (ending September 29), Tucson sector agents had rescued 204 immigrants, compared with 1,245 in the fiscal year 2000.

Meanwhile, the immigrant death toll keeps rising. The Tucson Sector recorded 73 deaths all of last year, compared with 48 already through this June--with another three months to go.

Still, agents have seen a 25-percent drop in illegal crossings in Arizona and California, according to Johnny Williams, western regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol's parent agency.

This drop further muddies the numbers when it comes to the percentage of overall immigrants actually rescued.

According to detractors, other moves call into question the Border Patrol's commitment to slowing immigrant deaths. For example, in March when a group called Humane Borders began installing water tanks in treacherous desert areas, the agency seemed to lend its tacit approval. "No one should have to die simply trying to cross from one country into another," Tucson Sector spokesman Rob Daniels said at the time. "Even if it's illegal, people shouldn't have to pay with their lives."

But, following a string of recent deaths, the agency appears to have become more critical of the water stations, saying they give would-be border crossers a false sense of security. "Actually, we always felt that way," Daniels told the Tucson Weekly last month. He said a daily newspaper miscast his earlier comments.

Nonetheless, the latest safety steps gained urgency after the May deaths of 14 immigrants in the western Arizona desert, and the public-relations nightmare they spawned for the INS. By June, the United States and Mexico had convened a series of meetings among more than 30 representatives from both countries.

Also in June, Border Patrol Chief Gustavo De La Viña met to discuss the crisis with Roberto Rodriguez-Hernandez, a deputy director of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Both countries are committed to working to promote safe, legal, humane and orderly immigration," Rodriquez-Hernandez said after the meeting.

The officials pledged greater binational efforts, including the deployment of more search-and-rescue teams. There's also been discussion of erecting six 30-foot-tall "rescue towers" offering distress buttons and strobe lights.

Attorney General John Ashcroft attended many of the meetings, saying afterward that "I am fully committed to a safe and orderly border--for residents, visitors and migrants."

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigrant Forum in Washington, D.C., says such binational cooperation to reduce border deaths reveals a growing consensus for reform. "To me, these are confidence-building steps toward a new U.S.-Mexico agreement on immigration."

In this country, "Politicians of both parties, backed by the general public, don't know what to do, but want to do something," he says. "People are dying."

Sharry predicts that meetings scheduled for this fall between President Bush and Mexican President Vincente Fox will result in even greater safety efforts. "And I think there will be some expansion of temporary worker visas," he says.

Indeed, on August 9 the White House agreed in theory to a guest worker program.

But with the carrot goes the stick: The Bush administration is also continuing a border law enforcement build-up begun under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

The law required the Border Patrol to recruit 1,000 new agents annually through this year. Though hirings have not kept pace with that mandate, the White House proposes funding an additional 1,140 agents over the next two years; in all, this represents a two-fold agency staffing increase since the mid-1990s.

Regardless, critics such as Douglas Mayor Ray Borane say the hiring flurry adds little protection for immigrants or border residents. "The federal government continues to think that the only way to solve the problem is to put more agents on the border. It's all eyewash," Borane told the Associated Press.

It's also hogwash, says Rev. John Fife, a leader of the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s, and a veteran border human-rights watchdog. Specifically, he claims that the Border Safety Initiative "obviously is not making significant difference in the level of safety along the border. And BORSTAR is like a lifeguard who tries to herd everyone into the deep end, and then takes credit for the occasional rescue.

"If the Border Patrol was really serious about saving lives," Fife says, "it would be doing far more. There is still militarization along the border, and the migrants are still going to flee from the Border Patrol, unless they're in desperate trouble."

By that time, it's usually too late for a medic to help, he says.

And that is not a pretty picture.

Speaking in December at a Tucson border conference, Claudia Smith, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, somberly described how immigrants die in the desert.

Some "simply go berserk and their bodies are found by following a trail of clothes," she said. "Others, very conscious of their death, take their clothes off, make a little pillow, and lay down to die, tucking whatever identification they have under their clothes. It is a horrible, horrible death, and they just realize they cannot go on.

"The Border Patrol is driving people out into the desert," she said, "and not coincidentally, out of the public view. They're sending migrants into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in the Southwest.

"When you look at the Border Patrol's strategic plan, which was approved in late 1994, they anticipated, in their words, that 'people would face mortal dangers when re-channeled into the mountains and desert.' It also predicted that many people would be desperate enough that they would adjust to the new routes. And indeed they did."

These current policies are "not only morally unacceptable, but also a violation of various international agreements which we have signed, guaranteeing that we would protect life," Smith said. "We don't have the right to enact strategies that ensure that hundreds of people will die."

Compounding the irony, such suffering is one-sided, she said. "While in six years we have had almost 600 deaths of migrants from San Diego to Yuma, less than half a dozen employers have been prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers--which speaks volumes about the hypocrisy of our policy."

Beyond double standards, critics say the Border Patrol is trying to shift the lion's share of blame for immigrant deaths onto people-smugglers, commonly called coyotes. Director Williams trumpeted this position in June. "Migrants are perishing in the Arizona desert primarily because smugglers are leaving them there," he said. "They're leading them there and then leaving them to die.

Tucson Sector Chief Aguilar echoes that view. He says a beefed-up assault on coyotes will save lives. "There is a recognition that (immigrants) do make a conscious decision to come to the United States. They then place their lives in the hands of smugglers, who really don't care about anything other than dollars.

"The smugglers are the ones that then follow up by taking these people ... through these treks of miles and miles through some of the most treacherous areas known to man in North America," he says.

But this notion may be overblown, both in theory and in fact. For example, Lucian Gomez, his father and their two companions "probably came up on their own," according to Newman.

John Fife says the Border Patrol "is absolutely trying to shift the blame. But what's clear is that, like members of the Border Patrol or even the clergy, some smugglers are good folks trying to help people cross the border, and others are rogues."

Aguilar also counters claims that BORSTAR and the Border Safety Initiative are meant to temper bad publicity from policies such as El Paso's Operation Hold the Line, San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper and Arizona's Operation Safeguard.

These variously labeled Border Patrol operations share one key element: spinning a thick enforcement web around towns like Nogales and Douglas, thereby forcing crossers out into the desert where they're more easily nabbed--and, according to critics, much more likely to die.

Calls to the San Diego office of Johnny Williams, who is considered the architect of these policies, were not returned.

Aguilar says the operations are simply meant to block known smuggling routes. He says smugglers "take advantage of the infrastructure available to them, beginning in Mexico." That infrastructure "translates into highways from the interior of Mexico to the border."

In turn those highways lead to areas that can accommodate gatherings of large groups for mass crossings--border towns with plenty of cheap flophouses and quick transportation routes. At the same time, Aguilar says smugglers need similar staging areas on the U.S. side, thereby drawing them "into our communities.

"Once we take that [infrastructure] away as we have done in San Diego, as we have done in El Paso, as we have done in Nogales and even in Douglas, the smuggler then continues to push for areas where he can continue his efforts," meaning the deep desert.

"But no, the Border Patrol is not driving these people into more rural areas, is not driving them into the desert," Aguilar argues. "The Border Patrol is applying their resources as any other responsible law-enforcement agency would do."

Others claim the strategy is just savvy politics. Among them is former Tucson Sector Chief Ron Sanders, who has become highly critical of INS policies since retiring from the agency in 1999. Border Patrol agents have been concentrated in border urban areas that "have a lot more political power than rural areas," he says.

"It's as if you pulled all of your policemen out of South Tucson, and said, 'You know, that's an Hispanic area, there's not a lot of political clout down there. So we're going to put all of our [officers] up in the northwest area of Tucson, because those people have a lot more money and a lot more clout.'

"That's kind of the decision the Border Patrol has made in some areas."

THESE POLICY TWISTS SEEM uniformly absurd from the vantage of remote Highway 86, on the eastern edge of the Tohono O'odham Reservation, where Troy Newman now scans a heavily used immigrant route. The old trail shadows the Baboquivari Mountains on the west, and bears decades of debris, empty water jugs, soda cans, animal bones, a tattered doll.

"They use Kitt Peak Observatory as a beacon," he's saying. "You can see it all the way from Mexico. It's when they get past this point that they get lost. That's what happened to those guys this morning."

Many times the travelers escape this harsh region, to points north such as Phoenix or Los Angeles. Other times they do not. "We might be working 16- or 18-hour days, or we might be out for three days straight searching for people," Newman says.

And sometimes there's a payoff. "If we find them still alive, it's an awesome feeling."

He admits that agents "can get emotionally involved. Like a woman I treated the other day. Renal failure, same thing as the guy today. I stripped her down and iced her down, and we flew her to [the University Medical Center]. I couldn't sleep that night worrying 'Did she make it?' She did make it, too. What a relief."

Another time, "We got a report that someone had spotted a child beside one of these roads," he says. "So we came out here and found these teeny-weeny footprints."

Agents thought following the prints would be easy. They felt differently 10 hours later, when they were still looking. "At one point, we were saying, 'What are we going to do?'" Newman says. "The tracks were doubling back, going up ridges and back down through the wash."

Finally the team discovered a terrified nine-year-old, separated from her family, wandering barefoot and severely dehydrated through the desert. "Man, I felt great about finding her," Newman says.

Then there's the other side, the side of death, and the world of spirits that haunt this very sad place.

Newman stops beside the trail, squatting to check stale tracks, as threatening clouds slide across the sun and dapple a nearby ridge. "I come from a family of doctors," he says. "I got used to seeing people die. A lot of the guys, though, if they see a body they don't want to get close to it.

"You know, it doesn't really bother me. To me, the body is totally separated from that person when life passes away."

There's a silence.

Eventually he stands straight, eyes inscrutable behind dark sunglasses, trained glances cataloguing the scene in total: raw-boned bluff, stubby cholla cactus, crushed Pepsi can, his own black boots.

Briefly he pauses, by habit, listening to the whispers of a breeze.

But the trail is empty; the desert has fallen still.

Agent Newman turns and ambles to his truck for the short, brisk drive back to town, a distance measured in something other than miles.

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