TUCSON—In letters sent today to two southern Arizona counties, the ACLU of Arizona demands 911 operators change the way they handle wilderness distress calls from individuals known or perceived to be border crossers. Specifically, the ACLU demands that Pima County (PDF) and Santa Cruz County (PDF) reform the practice of selectively referring certain distress calls to Border Patrol's search and rescue unit, BORSTAR, while initiating traditional search and rescue operations for others.

"By law, counties cannot deny protective services to ‘disfavored minorities,’” said ACLU of Arizona Attorney James Lyall. “The policy and practice of referring immigrants’ distress calls to Border Patrol is discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

The vast majority of 911 calls transferred to Border Patrol are not received by the agency, according to a recent news report. Even when they are, Border Patrol agents sometimes choose not to search for missing individuals unless they are provided with the person’s precise coordinates, the report concluded.

From 1998 to 2013, more than 2,700 bodies of men, women, and children were discovered in the Arizona desert, more than anywhere else in the country. The ACLU and other Arizona human rights organizations are deeply concerned that Pima and Santa Cruz counties' practice of referring 911 calls to a federal agency that consistently fails to respond contributes to preventable deaths. Tucson-based organizations No More Deaths and Coalición de Derechos Humanos have expanded their own search and rescue operations to fill the void left by government agencies.

“BORSTAR's indifference to migrants in distress reflects an inhumane U.S. border policy that is designed to drive people into the deadliest parts of the desert to 'deter' migration,” said Derechos Humanos' Cristen Vernon. “That does not mean that we are powerless to respond as human beings and as a community.”

A group of faith leaders from southern Arizona also sent letters to the supervisors of Pima (PDF) and Santa Cruz (PDF) counties today, joining the ACLU's call for equal delivery of emergency response services to all people.

"Just as the recent crisis in the Mediterranean has shown Europe that it cannot evade responsibility for preventable deaths of refugees, southern Arizona counties must also recognize the humanitarian crisis in our midst, as well as the legal and moral responsibility to help individuals in distress, regardless of circumstance, race, or nationality,” said Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.

In addition to the letters demanding a policy change, the ACLU today sent Pima and Santa Cruz counties public records requests that seek to shed more light on the way the counties’ 911 calls are handled.