Volunteer is Convicted of Littering for Leaving Water Jugs in the Desert to Save Migrants' Lives

By Valeria Fernández, FI2W contributor
José Lopez, 22, a migrant from Chiapas, Mexico got lost in the Sonoran desert in Arizona during three days and he survived on the water he found on water stations set in place by humanitarian groups. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

José Lopez, 22, a migrant from Chiapas, Mexico, got lost in the Sonoran desert in Arizona for three days and survived on the water he found at water stations set in place by humanitarian groups. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

AJO, Arizona — José López, 22, injured his left leg while jumping the border fence in the middle of the night as Border Patrol agents chased him. At daylight, he found himself lost and alone in the middle of the Sonoran desert. Three days later he ran out of water and food. He survived by refilling his jug at water tank stations he happened to find across the desert, until he found a road and, in desperation, turned himself in to the Border Patrol.

As three-digit summer temperatures loom, human rights activists are stepping up their efforts to provide humanitarian aid in the form of water and food to immigrants who cross the Mexican border into Arizona. The state is a principal gateway for unauthorized migration to the U.S.

Humanitarian groups argue their goal is to save lives. Border crossers are often abandoned by human smugglers and get lost in the arid terrain without water. But sometimes those involved in efforts to aid the migrants encounter roadblocks and even prosecution. A volunteer was convicted Wednesday of littering for leaving water jugs in a national refuge.

“We have a humanitarian crisis on our borders, it is a disaster and very little if anything is being done to address it in a humanitarian way,” said Laura Ilardo, coordinator of the Phoenix chapter of No More Deaths.

This weekend, this humanitarian aid coalition will start a summer-long campsite to provide aid to migrants in the middle of the deadliest part of the Sonoran desert.

No More Deaths is expecting at least 500 volunteers who will go for walks twice a day on heavily-trafficked migrant trails north of the border city of Nogales, Arizona. Volunteers who have been coming for the last year from all over the nation will give migrants gallons of water and first aid.

“The Sonoran desert is one of the most treacherous areas to cross, last year we had 30 days with 115 (degree temperatures),” said Mike Scioli, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in the Tucson sector.

“Everything starts when the smugglers tell the migrants that it will only take them three hours to cross. They tell them to carry one jug of water because they want them to move fast. All they see is a dollar sign,” said Scioli.

Humanitarian activists claim that the increased fortification of the border through the construction of a fence has pushed migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous areas of the desert.

“It’s not being successful,” Ilardo said. “It’s leading to more deaths.”

Yet, the Border Patrol in Tucson cites a 31 percent decrease in the number of apprehensions this fiscal year –which started on October 2008– as a sign of success.

Apprehensions are down from 360,000 in 2008 to 140,000 on 2009.

Scioli attributes these numbers to increased manpower on the border, new technology and the slowdown of the U.S economy.

“The migrant death rate is going up. It’s not necessarily the total number of deaths, it’s the ratio of the number of people that are crossing and dying,” said reverend Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, a humanitarian group that provides water in the desert at 102 water stations.

In the Tucson sector, which includes 262 linear miles on the border, 72 people lost their lives attempting to cross the desert this fiscal year, according to the latest Border Patrol figures. This represents a 9 per cent increase from 66 deaths for the same period the previous fiscal year.

Scioli said numbers are up due to exceptional incidents such as one in which 9 migrants drowned in a canal as they tried to flee detention.

But some are skeptical of the data reported by the U.S. government and believe the death toll may be even higher.

“Last year 100 (people) died in the reservation, and another 100 might probably die this year,” said Mike Wilson, a Native American who has been setting water tanks on Tohono O’odham nation land, on the border with Mexico.

The area has increasingly become an escape valve for the immigration flow seeking to go around the border fence.

Wilson, the only person putting water tanks on the reservation, is finding it hard to keep up with the work. Recently, tribal police officers told him to take his four water stations down.

“I respectfully declined,” said Wilson, only to find out later that somebody had taken them away. Now he’s substituting them with water gallon jugs.

He knows humanitarian work often comes at a price that can even lead to incarceration.

This Wednesday, Walt Staton was found guilty in U.S. District Court in Tucson of knowingly littering the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Staton, 27, a volunteer with No More Deaths, was cited by the Border Patrol for leaving water containers in the park south of Tucson.

Staton, who faces up to a year in prison for the charges, told the Arizona Daily Star he will continue to place water in the desert.

“We’re not asking permission from the United States to save people’s lives. We never have, because we know they’d say no,” Staton told the Tucson publication.

Staton’s is not the first case to go to court. During 2005, volunteers Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were accused of human smuggling after attempting to transport a group of injured migrants to the hospital. The charges against them were later dropped.

Critics argue that the work of humanitarian aid organizations across the border encourages illegal immigration.

“Putting down a gallon of water is not encouraging it,” said Ilardo, of No More Deaths. “It’s the creation of a wall and the militarization (of the border that) is causing the deaths.”

· Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Phoenix, Arizona.

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