- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

SELLS, Ariz. Scott Harper and Ricky Cardiel raced through the rocky, uneven desert. It was 109 degrees and not a cloud in the sky.

The two U.S. Border Patrol agents, members of the agency's elite search-and-rescue team, were told that a woman and her small child both illegal immigrants were stranded in the desert.

"When they call us, you know things already have gone bad," Agent Harper said. "It's a race against time. Out here, someone is going to die if you don't get there right now."

Ahead of them in a small gully is a red blanket, hiding something. They look at each other, then pull the blanket back. No woman, no baby today. Just backpacks belonging to three illegal aliens the agents find hiding nearby, including a 20-year-old woman who decides to run but gives up after a short chase.

The three immigrants, all Brazilians, were part of a group being led by an alien smuggler, or coyote, into the United States. The woman and the child already had been picked up by another coyote and taken north.

The three, along with a Mexican national who had gone for help and was caught nearby, sat on the ground and smiled as the agents handed them water.

"You've got to really want to do this," Agent Cardiel said. "Today it turned out OK, but tomorrow it might be bad. But what we're doing is important because we are saving lives."

"It's always sad when there are children involved," Agent Harper said. "They have the least choice in the matter, since it was an adult who decided to bring them into this desert.

"We rescued one child earlier this year, a 2-year-old boy who had had nothing to eat or drink in two-and-a-half days," he said. "Fortunately, we were able to save him."

The two agents, both emergency medical technicians, are members of the Border Patrol's Search Trauma and Rescue Team, known as Borstar the agency committed to the concept of search and rescue to improve the safety of its agents, illegal aliens and the general public.

In 1998, the Border Patrol began the Border Safety Initiative, designed to make the border environment safer. Borstar is a part of that effort.

The Borstar teams provide emergency search-and-rescue responses all along the U.S.-Mexican border. They are made up of agents trained in a variety of search-and-rescue disciplines.

"Sometimes you get information that people need help and you have to backtrack through the desert 10 to 50 miles," Agent Harper said. "Often, the strongest in the group goes for assistance once they realize there is a medical emergency, and it can be difficult in this desert for them to find their way back."

Each team member undergoes a training regime that includes search-and-rescue fundamentals, land navigation, technical rescue skills, communication and first aid. The Borstar teams often are the only medical or rescue help available along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Agent Harper said those interested in joining Borstar teams can try out, undertaking a 2-mile run, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and swimming, and if they pass that and an oral examination, they are assigned to a six-week training academy.

"About 50 percent of those who enter the academy pass," he said. "You have to be focused and motivated since we always operate under difficult circumstances, including the weather and the terrain."

Agent Cardiel said the "normal day" for team members runs 13 to 15 hours, and that during the summer, 18-hour shifts are common. He said it is important to have "a family that understands the commitment you've made to this job."

The primary function of the Borstar teams is to respond to distressed people along the border, predominantly illegal aliens. Sometimes, the teams are called to assist other agents who have been injured. Team members, dressed in red T-shirts so they can be seen by assisting helicopters, have been involved in rescue operations lasting as long as three days and involving up to 300 victims.

"During the summer, we average one call a day," said Mr. Harper. "It's a hostile environment, but you've got to be ready."

Being ready means being equipped. Each Borstar team carries a stretcher, wire basket, medical bags, IV kits, airwave devices, bandages, 12 gallons of water, electrolyte replacements, defibrillator, laptop computer with mapping programs, and a global positioning system.

Since the Border Safety Initiative was established, Border Patrol agents have rescued more than 5,000 illegal migrants needing emergency assistance.

"This gives you an opportunity to help someone," Agent Cardiel said. "That can be very rewarding."

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