IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

For lost migrants to the U.S., cellphones can be lifeline

By Tim Gaynor
/ Source: Reuters

By Tim Gaynor

Lost and without water in the scorching desert a few miles (km) southwest of Tucson, Arizona, a group of six migrants who crossed the Mexican border hoping for a new life in the United States used a cellphone to call emergency services for help.

A few miles to the west on the same day last month, another group of four Mexican men stranded in temperatures well over 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) dialed 911 for emergency services and asked to be rescued.

More than 1,000 illegal immigrants are rescued as they cross into United States from Mexico each year. They are increasingly using cellphones to save their lives, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.

Previously, most migrants were unaware that they could use cellphones to call for help. Others were reluctant to carry them in case they were used by U.S. authorities to track them, or simply because they feared they would get stolen.

U.S. Border Patrol agents say rescues initiated by 911 calls have jumped fivefold in the past three years in the area south of Tucson, the main gateway for migrants slipping into the United States.

The calls are helping agents pinpoint the location of migrants who often risk death from exposure on a foot journey of up to 55 miles in withering heat.

"The addition of being able to locate them a little bit better by having the cellphones ... is helping to save lives," said Mike Scioli, spokesman for the Tucson sector Border Patrol, which rescued 460 migrants in the 10 months to July 31.

The distress calls are relayed by emergency services dispatchers to Spanish-speaking members of the Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue team.

They ask callers how many are in their group, what their medical condition is, and where they crossed from Mexico. They also use landscape markers to narrow the search, and, when available, technology to locate cellphone signals.

"If they have a Virgin of Guadalupe (religious symbol), food, water and a cellphone ... they feel safe," said Enrique Enriquez, coordinator for a migrant protection group called Grupo Beta in Nogales, south of the border. "They say to themselves, 'I'm protected, I'll make it.'"


Successive U.S. governments have ratcheted up security along the porous Mexico border since the mid 1990s, to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. In response, many head into remote desert and mountain areas to try to slip north undetected. Each year hundreds die making the trip.

While packing a phone leads to the rescue of many --including the 10 migrants picked up July 19, who were offered first aid and processed for deportation -- it is a far from reliable means of saving lives.

Enriquez said bandits, dubbed "bajadores" in Mexico, frequently steal migrants' phones.

And some migrants who died despite having cellphones with them may have become too weak or disoriented to call, or found themselves in an area with little or no cellphone reception.

Among items recovered with the skeletal remains of one migrant in desolate wilderness near the town of Ajo, southwest of Tucson in late April, were two Mexican cellphones.

"One of them I turned on, and it was functional," said Bruce Parks, the Chief Medical Examiner for Pima County, adding it was in an area known for poor cellphone coverage.

"If you've got a few bars, or no bars, you're not going to be making any calls."