Their death pose was captured in a haunting photo: A 2-year-old girl tucked inside her father’s arm, both of them washed ashore on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, drowned after a failed attempt to jump the border.
The image splashed across front pages a year ago this week, including The Washington Times and The New York Times, and dominated the airwaves. NBC labeled the father and daughter the “new faces of the border crisis.” CBS called the photos “a haunting image of desperation” as it devoted 42 seconds to panning across the photos in its June 26 newscast. ABC showed the photos for 34 seconds.
A day later, the Border Patrol released another image: agents patrolling another section of the Rio Grande and spotting a drowning 13-year-old Honduran boy. They swooped in on their boat, pulled the teen out of the water and performed CPR on the deck to save his life.
That rescue was caught in a dramatic video — with just seconds of coverage on CBS and NBC and no time at all on ABC, according to Newsbusters, a media watchdog.
Such is the grim math of the border.
The Honduran boy is one of 4,900 people last year whom Customs and Border Protection agents and officers rescued. They dove into roiling waters, saved migrants abandoned in the desert by smugglers, and treated catastrophic injuries of some who fell off the border wall.
Few of those rescues drew any headlines.
Among the 4,900 rescued were a paraplegic and a double amputee. Smugglers brought them to the Rio Grande in late May 2019, tossed them into the water and left them to drown. Agents leapt into the water to pull both men to safety.
Then there were the 61 migrants, ages 7 months to 66 years, traveling as a group who had to be rescued from flash floods in southern Arizona. And the family of six — two adults and children ranging from 1 to 17 years old — who nearly drowned in the Salinity Canal in Yuma.
For an agency that faces calls to “defund CBP” and whose personnel are labeled murderers and white supremacists, the lack of attention to the rescues is a source of deep frustration, said Mark Morgan, acting head of CBP, who regularly pleads for more attention to rescues.
“I think this is one of those stories that just gets lost in the quagmire, and I also think it would go a long ways to address one of the false narratives out there of the type of character of the men and women of CBP,” he said.
It’s particularly disheartening for an agency that can rival the Coast Guard for most lives saved each year yet has been vilified amid the poisonous national debate over immigration policy.
“Somebody will be happy to give you a thumbs-up, but it’s usually the other finger,” said Border Patrol Agent Kyle Belzer, a member of the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team in San Diego.
Deaths in custody
It’s usually the deaths that draw the headlines.
That was the case in December 2018 when two illegal immigrant children, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, died a couple of weeks apart after making the treacherous journey from Central America through Mexico and into the U.S. with parents hoping to take advantage of the “family loophole” in deportation policy.
Congressional Democrats said the Border Control neglected the children and demanded investigations into both deaths. Immigration rights activists said agents had blood on their hands, and news reporters called the deaths an “outrage.”
The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general quietly cleared the Border Patrol of culpability, saying it “found no misconduct or malfeasance” in either case. Jakelin died of streptococcal sepsis, and Felipe died of complications from the flu. Agents never even knew the boy was ill, the investigation concluded.
But the Southern Border Communities Coalition, an activist group, lists both children on its running tally of what it calls “Deaths by Border Patrol.”
The coalition has not responded to multiple requests for comment for this article, but it claims there were 10 “deaths by Border Patrol” in 2018 and 17 in 2019. So far this year, it lists one.
Debate over where to place blame for the deaths is heated.
Immigrant rights groups say federal policy and factors including the border wall are pushing migrants to take more risks, in harsher territory, to reach the U.S.
Homeland Security officials say the blame lies with smugglers, who view the migrants as sources of cash and are all too willing to leave them in the desert if they are not able to keep up.
Of the 17 deaths the Southern Border Communities Coalition attributed to the Border Patrol in 2019, 11 were labeled health or medical related, one was labeled a suicide, two were shootings during encounters with border agents or port officers, and three were killed in crashes while attempting to flee agents.
Mr. Morgan said he takes those cases seriously.
“It’s a tough balance because one individual that dies is obviously one too many. That absolutely should take our attention. We’ve got to focus on that. But I don’t think, though, that that means that we don’t talk about the other stuff,” he said.
That other stuff, he said, are the rescues — the 4,900 migrants in 2019 who might have died had it not been for an agent or officer on the scene.
For those who lob the racism charge at his agency, he points out that the Border Patrol is majority Hispanic, and so are those it rescues. Mr. Morgan said no agent or officer ever stops to ask the identity, or even legal status, of a person they jump into the water to save.
“No matter where our patients are coming from, that’s never really a consideration,” said San Diego BORSTAR agent James Hiney. “Saving a life is always the top priority.”
Agents say rescues happen on a near-daily basis, particularly as summer heat creates harsh conditions along much of the 1,954-mile boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.
“This time of year, agents expect they’re going to find people in distress, and they take that real serious,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., who served two decades in the Border Patrol and is now associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Sometimes the rescues present special challenges.
During one three-day period last year, agents in Eagle Pass, Texas, encountered a 36-year-old migrant woman with a mental impairment that made approaching her difficult; a 41-year-old man who could neither hear nor speak; and a man in a wheelchair, stranded on an island in the Rio Grande en route to the U.S. The double-amputee insisted he had made it there on his own but was unable to continue on his own and had to be rescued.
“With compassion and heroism, the agents of the U.S. Border Patrol save illegal border crossers from the bone-dry heat of the Arizona deserts, the utter callousness of alien smugglers and bandits, the swift waters of the Rio Grande River, and all manner of dangers,” said Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott.
While the Rio Grande dominates the rescue list in Texas, it’s desert exposure that spurs the most calls in Arizona and New Mexico. California has a mix, including migrants falling off the border wall, heat exposure and hypothermia in the mountains.
It’s not just the Border Patrol. CBP’s Air and Marine Operations division and its Office of Field Operations, which mans ports of entry, account for some of the rescues.
CBP officers and agents spotted three teenagers jumping into a canal this month to swim into the U.S. One was swept under a water gate, but a CBP officer managed to reach down and pull him out. The other two were rescued with a safety line.
So others may live
Agents say rescuing people isn’t an afterthought; it’s ingrained in the culture of CBP.
In Texas, Border Patrol agents found there was so much demand for rescues that they needed a way to shorten the time to reach each target.
The answer was the Missing Migrants Project, which has placed thousands of signs in remote locations with instructions on how to call 911. Each sign has a unique identifying number, which helps the emergency dispatch center pinpoint where the rescue team needs to go.
The Border Patrol also runs the BORSTAR teams, with more than 250 agents specially trained for search and rescue. Their motto is “So others may live.”
BORSTAR agents in San Diego estimated that 90% of those they rescued were migrants. The rest were U.S. citizens or residents who got lost hiking or otherwise fell into distress.
Mexico helps, too. Oftentimes, it will be family members in Mexico who report someone in distress to their local authorities, who then pass on the information to the U.S. side.
Last weekend, Grupo Beto, a Mexican migration agency, got two distress calls from a group lost in the Southern California mountains and reported them to the Border Patrol. After four hours of searching, agents rescued both groups: a total of 10 adults and three juveniles.
Mr. Manjarrez said the number of rescues on the southern border makes sense when considering the smuggling operations. Wealthier migrants are driven right to the border, but poorer migrants likely have been walking for some time — in some cases, weeks, as they traversed Central America and Mexico — to reach the U.S.
Add to that the smugglers, who leave them in T-shirts and jeans with no water. They promise Tucson is just over the horizon, when it’s really 60 miles north.
“On many occasions, people pass away just after they cross the border because they were already in bad shape in Mexico,” Mr. Manjarrez said.
The northern border also has its share of rescues.
An agent in the Detroit region was approached this month by a woman who said her husband had stopped breathing. The agent began CPR to keep the man alive until an emergency medical team reached the scene and used a defibrillator to revive him. He was taken to a hospital and made a full recovery.
The agent declined to be named publicly because of threats against Border Patrol personnel and their families.
Yet there is also touching praise for agents.
A girl from Laredo, Texas, made a thank-you video for agent Ricardo Carrillo, a certified EMT, after he helped treat her for severe heat exhaustion while she was on a fishing outing with her family this month.
“I want to thank all the Laredo Border Patrols for helping me when I was almost going to pass out,” the girl says in the video. “Thank you, officer Carrillo — and for also the Gatorade.”
Her mother chimes in: “Thank you guys for everything you do. God bless you.”