TUCSON, ARIZONA —
The border separating the United States and Mexico spans 3,200 kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico to Baja California. Yet for the countless undocumented immigrants who attempt to cross each year, the journey is difficult and often deadly. In southern Arizona dehydration among migrants is the number one cause of death.
Welcome to the southern border of Arizona, home of the Sonoran Desert. Unlike the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which receives the largest influx of undocumented immigrants in the nation, there is no river here. Instead, there are barren mountains, cacti, and poisonous snakes that bask on its burnt soil.
U.S. Border Patrol Spokesman Pete Bidegain said, “Temperatures are really extreme. It gets cold at night, it's extremely hot in the daytime, and it's a really dangerous area - and this is one of the areas where we see the majority of deaths that occur with people illegally crossing.”
Here, the most common cause of death is dehydration.
“Within a day, they can physically not carry enough water to make the journey. So within a day they are usually out of water, and some of these people, if they're dehydrated before they start their journey, it can take just a matter of hours before life-threatening lack of water,” according to Larry Steily, a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Border Patrol.
The U.S. Border Patrol's search and rescue unit, “BORSTAR”, has taken matters into its own hands to reduce the number of immigrant deaths. This year, they initiated what they call the “blue blinking light of life program” - a series of 7-and-a-half meter [25-foot] emergency call poles strategically placed throughout the desert on U.S. territory, that emit a high-intensity blue light and reflect the sun's rays during the day.
Raleigh Leonard, Tucson Division Chief for the U.S. Border patrol, said, “We looked at the tools that we had at our disposal, and began using statistical information and empirical information, and began plotting on maps: where best that we could deploy our rescue beacons, that they would be the most beneficial to the people that were finding themselves in distress in the desert."
The Tucson Border Patrol Sector says its team has rescued 459 people this year - 142 of them as a direct result of the 32 rescue beacons in operation today.