Fed up with decade-old strategies that have done little to slow the annual summer onslaught of border deaths in Arizona, the Rev. Robin Hoover is trying something new - giving out cellphone-sized GPS devices in Mexico to illegal border crosser guides.
Hoover - the founder and first president of Humane Borders - believes the initiative will help save lives. The Border Patrol worries it could create false hope and cause even more death.
In an emergency, the coyotes can activate the personal location beacons to send a signal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite. When the satellite locates the signal, the whereabouts are sent to a rescue coordination center operated by the U.S. Air Force. Officials there then contact the closest law-enforcement agency.
Hoover traveled to Altar, Sonora, a week ago to drop off five GPS devices to older women who volunteer at the town's migrant shelter because they know the young men who guide illegal border crossers through Arizona's desert, he said. The women, whom Hoover has known for a decade, will dispense the devices with moral instructions to the guides: Use the devices only in emergencies.
Altar is a popular staging town for would-be illegal border crossers from all over Mexico and Central America. It's about 115 miles southwest of Tucson.
"I have a way of getting them circulated in a responsible, moral way," said Hoover, who left Humane Borders 1 1/2 years ago. "I'm not out there in the Altar town square giving them out like candy."
For the past six years, Hoover and others have been lobbying the federal government to put up more 911 or cellphone towers in the desert. About half of all Border Patrol rescues start with 911 calls from illegal border crossers in distress. But those talks recently came to a halt, Hoover said, prompting him to launch the new initiative.
"We're doing the ethical thing," Hoover said. "I'm trying to save lives out here. ... The only thing you can do with that device is call in search and rescue. I don't see any potential abuses."
The Border Patrol disagrees.
"It could actually have the opposite effect and encourage people to cross illegally into unforgiving terrain because they have this device to rely on," Border Patrol spokesman Steven Cribby said in an emailed statement.
Giving out the devices creates the same false hope that putting in water tanks does, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal-immigration lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.
"The way to prevent people from dying in the desert is to convince them to not go out there in the first place," Mehlman said. "This could wind up causing more people to go out there and risk their lives."
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said any help in locating people lost in the desert would be helpful. Whether the people are here legally or not, it's the county sheriff's responsibility to find and rescue them.
Hoover knows the program is controversial. He already has lost friends because of the initiative, called "Rescatame," or "Rescue Me" in English, Hoover said.
"People that tell me I'm in collusion with coyotes," Hoover said in a phone interview from Mexico City, where he's getting ready for a Friday news conference about his initiative.
But Hoover is unwavering in his commitment. Not all guides, or coyotes, are the morally corrupt criminals that the Border Patrol portrays them as, he said.
Hoover has invested about $2,000 of his own money in the project, spending another $1,000 that was donated to him on the devices and travel, he said.
The personal locator beacons - made by McMurdo and called Fast Find 210 - cost about $225 each, Hoover said. They weigh about 5 ounces and have batteries that last five years, he said.
He expects to buy more soon. Since he announced the initiative Friday, Hoover said, he has received emails from people promising to donate money for the effort.
It has been a deadly decade in Arizona's desert for illegal immigrants, with the bodies of more than 2,000 men, women and children found since 2001. Hoover formed Humane Borders in the summer of 2000 and put blue water tanks throughout the desert. He
Other non-government groups were formed to set out water jugs and offer first aid on the migrant trails. The Border Patrol formed a specially trained search, trauma and rescue team called Borstar. The Mexican government warns people each year through posters, and radio and television ads about the dangers of the desert.
And the U.S. and Mexican governments operate a program each summer offering free flights back to Mexico City to get people out of the 100-plus-degree heat.
But none of it has worked. The 252 bodies recovered in Arizona in fiscal year 2010 marked the deadliest year ever. Despite a significant slowdown in illegal crossings, the number of bodies found continues at the same or higher levels, indicating the route has become more dangerous.
There were 118 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in the area covered in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in fiscal year 2010, which ended on Sept. 30, the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database shows. That's up from 88 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in 2009, 39 per 100,000 apprehensions in 2004 and three per 100,000 apprehensions in 1998.
Through the first seven months of fiscal 2011, there have been 108 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.