Monday, July 26, 2021

Border Patrol's Mission Evolves

On Twitter, Bill Melugin below, who's been at the border for a few days, recording first handout the scale of the crisis. (Scroll down his feed for lots of videos.)

At LAT, "Why Border Patrol is doing more to rescue and identify missing migrants":

FALFURRIAS, Texas — A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent scrutinized video of a dying migrant on her cellphone, trying to match the background to the ranch she was searching for his body last month.

“Can I see the picture real quick, the background?” another agent asked.

Agent Nancy Balogh held out her phone. In the two minutes of video, 25-year-old Yoel Nieto Valladares lay on the sandy ground, shirtless and sweating, jeans cinched with a rectangular metal belt buckle. Nieto was barely able to sip from a Coke as another man fanned him with a black cap. The dying man’s hands twitched, a tattoo of his father and younger brother’s initials visible on his arm. His eyes rolled.

“How do you feel, guy? Hey, how do you feel?” the man filming asked, panning to show a dozen others dressed all in black, the color favored by smugglers working at night.

Nieto shushed him, smiling.

“This is bad, he’s delirious,” said the man filming.

The dying man groaned.

Moments later, in a second minute-long video, Nieto’s black polo shirt was on and his arms lay atop it, limp. His eyes were open, staring.

A smuggler had sent the videos to Nieto’s family with GPS coordinates. “I really hope we find him,” Balogh said.

Several years ago, the U.S. Border Patrol launched a Missing Migrant Program in Arizona — though the agency’s primary mission remained apprehending migrants — that has since expanded border-wide. Their relationship with migrant advocates had grown strained. In recent years, the Border Patrol had even helped prosecute some who left water and other supplies for migrants in the desert.

But the agency’s approach has now evolved amid an increase in migration and deaths.

Brooks County — about 75 miles north of the Rio Grande Valley — has become the Border Patrol’s laboratory, a place to test approaches they’re already extending across the border. A three-person missing-migrant team trained in forensics is working with an intelligence officer to help identify migrant remains.

The agency also added equipment and technology to help locate stranded migrants faster. It installed more than 1,400 rescue signs across the region labeled with GPS coordinates. Agents obtained GPS coordinates for more than 22,000 landmarks that can be referenced during a migrant’s 911 call — from power poles to windmills, pipelines and cattle guards. And they positioned 30 mobile, solar-powered rescue beacons in remote areas with little to no cellphone reception. The beacons are equipped with cameras that have already led to the rescue of a migrant.

By summer’s end, the beacons will alert agents’ cellphones directly. By year’s end, they plan to have 170 beacons nationwide, which can be used to rescue migrants and investigate, Supervisory Agent Brandon Copp said.

Despite the summer heat, which usually decreases migration, the number of migrants arriving at the border last month — 188,829 — was the largest in years. The busiest area for crossings was south Texas, where agents earlier this month stopped 736 migrants in three groups near the Rio Grande. As of last month, they had helped recover more than 324 migrant remains and conducted 9,201 rescues nationwide, 81% more than all of last year.

“If we get facial recognition of a guide, we can tie them to that migrant’s death,” Copp said.

Like many of Texas’s 254 counties, Brooks — population 7,100 — doesn’t have a medical examiner. Death investigations are handled by justices of the peace unless the county pays an outside expert. Local funeral homes historically cut corners burying migrant dead. Researchers investigating unmarked migrant graves at a local cemetery in recent years found multiple migrant bodies buried together, some in plastic bags and milk crates. They had to exhume and catalog DNA in international databases to help identify them.

Now the sheriff’s office is working with the Border Patrol to more quickly identify and release migrant remains without sending them for autopsies or DNA testing, which can be expensive and time-consuming. The sheriff just got a secondhand refrigerated trailer on loan from the state funeral home association, used for COVID dead during the pandemic. Deputies and Border Patrol agents now store unidentified bodies there as they investigate.

Because of changes in county ordinances, some of the Border Patrol agents in south Texas, El Paso and Tucson have trained to photograph dead migrants’ fingerprints to help consulates identify them. They also learned to recover fingerprints from bodies that have decayed or been submerged in water...

Still more