Alisa Reznick, KJZZ Fronteras Desk, 15 November 2023

A new report from the border advocacy group No More Deaths alleges 911 dispatchers in Pima County are failing to help lost migrants in Arizona’s vast desert borderland.

Pima is Arizona’s largest county that abuts the U.S.-Mexico border and it includes huge stretches of rugged, remote terrain. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has a search and rescue team with planes and a helicopter it can deploy when people go missing or need help in the roughly 9,100 square mile county. But Sophie Smith, a No More Deaths volunteer who co-authored the new report, says that isn’t happening for migrants. 

“Because the county has a policy of forwarding all 911 calls that they receive from people, their dispatchers perceive to be crossing the border to a Border Patrol enforcement line and away from those county resources,” she said. 

Smith and other researchers analyzed more than 2,000 911 calls made to the sheriff’s department by migrants over the last several years — including a trove of hundreds made between 2016 and 2018, and another batch of dozens transferred to the Border Patrol in June 2022. 

She says they found no evidence that the county used ground resources for search and rescue efforts for any of those calls, even when it was clear that Border Patrol agents hadn’t found the missing person and had called off the search. According to the report, 17 of the more than 60 migrants who called the sheriff’s office in June of last year were never found, despite being transferred to the Border Patrol.Michel Marizco/KJZZWater bottles of the sort carried by people illegally crossing the border lie in the desert just north of the border wall in Sasabe, Arizona, in 2021.

“We’re talking about not just the failure to act in time to prevent the loss of life, but the disappearance of the person who was reported in distress, with no further investigation to try to locate them,” she said.

The report also found that in many cases, 911 dispatchers lacked the language skills to effectively communicate with Spanish speakers. Transcript excerpts of some recordings shared in the report include unidentified callers saying they’re dying and pleading for help in Spanish.

Cecilia Ochoa, a 911 dispatch manager with the sheriff’s department, says the department has 40 dispatchers on staff currently, and calls are transferred to Border Patrol based on location, rather than language or presumed immigration status. 

“They are a resource. They have air support, they have ground support, they are going to be the closest resource that can find an individual out in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

Ochoa says her dispatchers also may ask callers whether they’re lost and transfer them to Border Patrol when they say are.  

“We are then going to transfer over to BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue) regardless of if they’re Spanish or English speakers, if they’re Spanish speakers, BORSTAR helps us with those translation services, it’s a much quicker response,” she said

Ochoa says her dispatchers give as much information as possible to county search and rescue teams and Border Patrol entities to assist with searches, but that she could not speak to specific cases or how county teams responded to them.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said standard protocol for 911 dispatchers in Maricopa, Pima and Santa Cruz counties is to transfer the call to CBP’s dedicated 911 line and supply CBP with their badge number, name and, if available, the coordinates of the missing person. The case is handled by Border Patrol personnel, including search and rescue teams, from there. The agency logged more than 22,000 rescues border-wide during the 2022 fiscal year.