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. Today, the unit has 194 agents, including two 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 got 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.
On a recent June day, agents Kicklighter and Alex Garcia got a report of a "dropoff" of about 15 immigrants, meaning a group had been spotted running from a vehicle into the brush.
Kicklighter tracked them in his Humvee, which is loaded for rescue. A "stokes basket," a sort of portable stretcher, takes up most of the back. One pack carries medical equipment, such as oxygen tanks and IV bags, and another has gear to help haul a person in the stokes basket from mountainous or craggy areas. A jug full of ice water is also kept handy.
Patrolling deep South Texas takes cooperation from ranch owners. Most do, sometimes grudgingly. Kicklighter notices a new sign at one gate: "U.S. Border Patrol do not enter without permission."
In pursuit at another ranch, Kicklighter spots fresh footprints leading to a section of fence dirty from many sneakers. He and Garcia decide the group is in the miles of brush between two fence lines.
The agents separate, and Garcia drives back to the highway, re-entering the ranch near the southern fence. Working with a search dog, he patrols five miles on foot in 100-degree weather.
When Garcia finally emerges from the brush, his fatigues are soaked with sweat and Garcia is clammy and nauseated. Kicklighter sticks him with an IV to treat heat exhaustion.
Immigration experts see a direct correlation between crackdowns in urban areas and a rise in immigrant deaths in the Southwest's deserts, mountains and ranch scrub.
"They've basically transferred flows away from California and El Paso into Arizona, New Mexico and the more remote parts of the Rio Grande Valley," said Doug Massey, a Princeton University sociologist. "You actually decrease the chance of doing apprehensions, but you also increase the rate of mortality."
Mario Villarreal, assistant chief for the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector, said blame for the deaths should fall on the smugglers, sometimes known as coyotes.
"Many of the people that we encounter have fallen into distress because the smuggler has abandoned the group," he said. "The people when they're on the trek in many cases are not prepared, they don't have enough water, are not wearing the right clothing, not wearing the right shoes."
On another day, David and agent Joe Puebla join other agents tracking a new group of illegal immigrants, which apparently has split up.
There is a flash of color in the brush, and then a man and two women step out.
One woman is 18 and says she is traveling alone, from Honduras. The man, 28, and other woman, 26, are from Guatemala. They plead wearily to be let go, saying they are only a day's walk to Houston.
"No," David says with emphasis. "The coyotes lie. Houston is four to five hours — by car."
Both women cry, the man looks listless. "When did you eat last?" David asks. "Are you thirsty?"
They say that it has been two days without food, and that they are thirsty.
"Don't cry, don't cry," David says. "You are lucky. This week already six people have died."
Back in the Humvee, David admits sometimes 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."