Border agents double as EMTs, save lives


(NewsNation) — On a day where temperatures climbed to 112 degrees, Border Patrol agents found three people near the California-Mexico border in severe heat distress — one going in and out of consciousness and seizing. 

They were in the Jacumba Wilderness, a mountainous desert in southern California with little natural shade. The agents, who are also EMTs, pulled out their backpacks full of IV fluids, ice packs and other first aid gear, and did what they could to cool the migrants down. They were the only medical help available in the hours between the migrants being found and airlifted to a hospital, according to Customs and Border Patrol

Agents additionally certified as EMTs can increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to save an injured or ill person. In contrast, when agents don’t have EMT or paramedic training, they may have no other option but to watch people in these circumstances die before help can arrive, said certified EMT Border Patrol agent Jon Anfinsen.

“You get this feeling of helplessness,” Anfinsen said. “There’s a rule that one-third of the patients you encounter will be fine. Another third will pass away no matter what you do. That last third is where the interventions (EMTs) can take will make a difference.”

More than 1.5 million migrants crossed the deserted areas in between border checkpoints last year — quadruple that in 2020. These people often face life-threatening heat or cold and rugged conditions that can lead to injury or illness. Lingering heat waves across southern California and other border states this summer have only made the situation worse. 

In 1998, in response to high numbers of deaths near the border the federal government created BORSTAR, a specialty search and rescue unit that also receives additional medical training. This group’s training has been shown to reduce migrant deaths.

Yet more than two decades later, support to expand EMT certifications among field agents varies, despite a federal push to mandate funding is available for field agents.

Proposed legislation that would’ve given pay incentives for border patrol agents to complete EMT or paramedic training stalled and then failed in late 2020. It keeps the opportunity to receive this life-saving treatment only for those whose leaders support it.

CBP Air and Marine and Border Patrol agents airlift an injured migrant. Courtesy of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

There’s been a distinct shift in the past decade in who’s crossing and why, experts say. 

“It’s not just single adults anymore, but families and children, and not just for Mexico, but traveling from Venezuela to Haiti and Nicaragua and all over the world,” said Danilo Zak, an immigration policy expert with the nonpartisan National Immigration Forum. “And they’re not just seeking jobs, but they’re fleeing persecution and seeking protection. The result is: There’s been a real increase in migrant deaths at the border.”

The implementation of Title 42 — the policy which sends all undocumented immigrants across the border regardless of asylum or refugee claims — has made some asylum seekers desperate, experts say. 

Border patrol is “not able to penalize (undocumented immigrants) for repeat crossing, so what we see is huge increases in repeat crossing rates at the border, which is driving up overall encounters,” Zak said. “Before Title 42 was in place, we saw 7% recidivism as it’s called or repeat crossing rates. … That’s shot up by about four times, averaging about 28% recidivism.”

That includes trying crossings that previously would’ve been considered too risky, which studies show greatly increases the risk of death. 

As more vulnerable people cross the border, Border Patrol agents say they are encountering more emergencies in the field and relying on just eight to 10 hours of first aid training in the academy. In contrast, EMTs have to attend an extra 40-day length of training.

Between the pandemic and increased numbers of asylum seekers at the southern border, it’s hard for many agents to keep up with the continuing education required every two years, said Anfinsen, who is also a President of the National Border Patrol Council in the Del Rio Sector.

“It’s all hands on deck, all of the time,” Anfinsen said, adding that EMTs get added responsibility and oversight that can cause extra stress.

Anfinsen points out this training does not just help save the lives of migrants. Border Patrol agents with medical training rescue other agents and assist in rescue missions to find American citizens. Agent EMTs were recently called to provide emergency medical care for victims of the Uvalde school shooting in May.

“EMTs are seen as a luxury, but not a necessity … left to compete with everything else in the budget,” Anfinsen said. “Without a mandate, we won’t get the program up to what it needs to be.”

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