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Elite unit rescues immigrants in need

Published July 16, 2006

FALFURRIAS, Texas - Border Patrol agent J. Kicklighter admits to being an adrenaline junkie, which may be what it takes to save illegal immigrants lost in the inhospitable terrain of deep South Texas.

A member of an elite Border Patrol unit focused on rescues, he can track someone with a faxed image of a shoe tread, or find a 911 caller by juxtapositions of windmills and mesquite trees mapped in his head.

"It's not checkers," he said, "it's chess."

The Border Patrol regularly releases tallies on rescues, which it defines as "any incident where lack of intervention by the Border Patrol would result in death or serious bodily injury."

Since Oct. 1, there have been more than 400 in the Rio Grande Valley sector - one of five sectors in Texas - compared with 159 all of the previous year. For the full U.S.-Mexico border, more than 2,350 rescues have been made this year, and 2,577 were made the previous year.

Immigrant advocates find irony in the concept of Border Patrol agents as saviors - especially, they say, when the agency's intensified apprehensions have led migrants to use routes through deadlier terrain.

"They're knowingly pushing the flow of undocumented immigrants into danger," said Nathan Selzer of the Valley Movement for Human Rights. "It seems a little disingenuous to say, 'Look at all the ones we save.' "

The Border Patrol's Search, Trauma and Rescue team, known as Borstar, was formed in 1998 as apprehended immigrants increasingly told agents about people left deep in the brush or desert. Now, the unit has 194 agents, two of them women.

Their training regimen includes desert marches, rappelling with body baskets, sleep deprivation and medical training - skills the agents say are essential.

"There's really nobody else to do it, when you think about it," agent Isaac David said. "Someone's missing in the desert, in the brush, who you going to call? There's really nobody to look for the people.'"

In May, the body of a 3-year-old boy was found using a faxed image of his mother's shoe print.

Unable to keep up with the rest of their group, the two had been left in the Arizona desert. The mother went for help and was picked up by the Border Patrol, who told Borstar of the missing child. Agents tracked her print by flashlight for seven hours before finding the boy, who had died.

Borstar agents are, however, part of the Border Patrol, and when they are not rescuing immigrants they are hunting them.

David admits sometimes when he takes illegal immigrants into custody, a small voice says, 'Let them go.'

"Anybody could feel sorry for another person, say, 'What kind of harm is this person going to do?' " he said. "But the reality of it is, even if we said, 'Go right ahead,' where are they going to go? They're lost."

[Last modified July 16, 2006, 02:09:38]

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