Border Patrol to deploy rescue beacons throughout Big Bend Sector

U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Greg Davis / Border Patrol plans to deploy 30 of these rescue beacons –– which are powered by solar panels and can be seen from miles away –– all throughout the Big Bend Sector.

MARFA –– U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced last week that it will begin deploying rescue beacons throughout the Big Bend Sector to help locate undocumented immigrants in distress. The announcement comes as 32 migrants have died so far in this fiscal year within the Big Bend Sector while trying to cross into the United States, compared to seven in the last fiscal year.

“What we are trying to do is get those rescue beacons out there because this gives the individuals an opportunity to be able to look for help,” said Sector Chief Sean McGoffin at a press conference held on Friday.

As McGoffin explained it, while crossing the harsh West Texas terrain, a migrant, if in need of assistance, can press a button at the base of the beacon, sending a distress signal back to the Border Patrol stations. Agents will then be sent out to beacon, arriving on scene generally within an hour.

The sector has already deployed one beacon in the region out by Sierra Blanca, beginning in June of this year.

According to McGoffin, agents have conducted four rescue operations since the beacon was deployed in June. In those four instances, 10 undocumented immigrants were rescued. “Along with the increase in individuals that were interdicting, also comes the rescues. Our rescues are up 456 percent [in the Big Bend Sector]. We have rescued over 675 people so far this year,” McGoffin said.

McGoffin said he plans to have 30 beacons deployed throughout the region now that his sector has secured funding for these beacons, which cost around $12,000 each, through the Missing Migrant Program.

“The rescue beacons are strategically placed according to migrant traffic patterns, operational intelligence and geographical considerations,” said Agent Kevin Laing, who oversees the beacon program for the sector.

Each beacon, which stands 30-feet tall and resembles a cell antenna, has a box at its base with a red emergency activation button positioned near a panel that reads in both English and Spanish: “If you need help, push the red button. Rescue personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area.”

On the beacon there is a graphic depicting “rescue personnel” providing water to someone sitting beside the beacon. That said, nowhere on the box does it indicate that agents with Border Patrol –– rather than more traditional emergency-response personnel like EMTs –– will be responding to the distress call.

One issue raised at the press conference was how migrants would know these towers are rescue beacons. As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, the agency has been installing autonomous surveillance towers throughout the sector that are intended to apprehend undocumented immigrants. And according to the company that developed the towers, migrants have been circumnavigating the towers’ multi-mile surveillance zone in order to avoid detection. Those surveillance towers, incidentally, resemble these rescue beacons that are now being deployed.

McGoffin said that he called this conference in order to reach out to the media and spread awareness of this new technology. “We’re trying to get the media to make sure we put this out and that people can understand what these towers are,” McGoffin said. “That’s why we’re having this press conference so that we get that word out.”

Greg Davis, the spokesperson for the Big Bend Sector, said that the agency will also be placing public service announcements throughout Spanish-language media to better spread the word about these beacons.

Even though these beacons are meant for rescue operations, they are also able to surveil undocumented immigrants as they come within a certain range of the equipment. As agent Laing explained it, each beacon is, “equipped to obtain a digital image of the individual or individuals in distress as well as monitor an individual approaching the rescue beacon system.” McGoffin said that this monitoring feature allows agents to evaluate the condition of the migrants who are in distress before arriving on scene.

McGoffin also announced that the agency will be installing placards along crossing routes that urge migrants to call 911. “We’re going to be putting these placards, once we have landowner permission, into locations where there is cell phone coverage and where people are normally in trouble,” he said.

As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, the tri-county region is working on upgrading its 911 software, allowing callers to text and send live video to emergency response personnel in order to provide a more complete picture of where they are located. The hope is that the multimedia capabilities of this next-generation system will help Border Patrol agents locate those crossing the border that are in need of help.

“No one should have to die as a result of coming into the United States,” McGoffin said. “We want to decrease the amount of deaths. We do not like having people die.”