Border Patrol arrests migrants seeking humanitarian aid

As temperatures in the Southwest soar, advocates worry about border crossers.


Last week, as temperatures in southern Arizona exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, four Mexican men crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Heading north into a remote stretch of the Sonoran Desert, they braved poisonous scorpions and rattlesnakes, searing temperatures, and rivers that can surge unexpectedly, growing weaker as the heat and dehydration took their toll.

After several days, the men arrived at a camp run by the group No More Deaths, or No Más Muertes, located on property owned by best-selling children’s book author Byrd Baylor, who allowed the group to set up a permanent base on her land more than a decade ago. The camp sits near the community of Arivaca roughly 11 miles north of the border; it’s a place where volunteers provide water, food, and emergency medical care to migrants making the treacherous journey across the desert.

On the afternoon of June 15, approximately 30 armed Border Patrol agents arrived at the No More Deaths camp to arrest the four men in what volunteers described as a “military-style operation.” The arrests followed a three-day showdown prompted by a volunteer’s request: The Border Patrol agents would need a federal warrant to search the property. After finally getting their warrant, the agents swooped in while a helicopter carrying a U.S. Customs and Border Protection video crew descended on the camp, filming footage of the arrests that was being broadcast on the agency’s Twitter account in real time.

Down at the camp, the volunteers became deeply disturbed by the spectacle: Given the onset of Arizona’s extreme heat wave, they say, the raid could deter future migrants from seeking help.

No More Deaths volunteers hike through a stand of ocotillo in the Sonoran Desert.

And what’s more, they say, the fact that Border Patrol agents secured a search warrant to gain entry meant that the new administration’s harsher stance on immigration enforcement would add to the thousands of human bodies currently scattered in the Southwestern borderlands. 

“The choice to interdict these people only after they entered the No More Deaths’ camp is direct evidence that this was a direct attack on humanitarian aid,” John Fife, one of the group’s founders, says. In the same statement posted on Facebook, he explains how the migrants arriving at the camp are especially vulnerable at this time when “the weather forecast is for record setting deadly temperatures.”

Since Donald Trump was elected president, between November 2016 and April 2017, southern Arizona’s Pima County has registered 71 migrant deaths—almost double the amount registered in the same period a year earlier. Illegal immigration had slowed long before Trump took office, from an average of 1.1 million people caught annually between 1980 and 2008, to less than half that amount in the last fiscal year. But the number of people dying as they make their way across the border has stayed relatively steady, as increased security has pushed many migrants to travel through more remote parts of the desert.

“We see very few deaths in the eastern part of the state these days,” says Mike Kreyche, a retired librarian who updates the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a database tracking migrant deaths in Arizona. The database is an ongoing collaboration between the Pima County Medical Examiners Office and Humane Borders, a Tucson-based human rights organization.

Most are dying in the wilderness areas southwest of Tucson, including Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range — treacherous country with few public access roads or services. In total, there have been 2,817 recorded deaths since 2001.

A group of volunteers stand disappointed after they find their water has been destroyed.

The fact that migrants are crossing through increasingly dangerous terrain is no coincidence. In 1994, the Clinton administration issued the so-called prevention through deterrence” policy, a border security strategy that envisioned the Southwest’s wildest landscapes as a weapon against illegal immigration.

As the number of unauthorized migrants coming through the border rose in the early 1990s, particularly through well-traveled “corridors” such as Nogales and California's San Diego area, the Border Patrol faced growing pressure to alter its traditional border-management practices. Previously, border enforcement meant apprehending migrants near roads and neighborhoods adjacent to the border, and a lot of migrants were simply crossing around them. The new approach would concentrate enforcement — including the construction of walls, and the deployment of Border Patrol agents and surveillance equipment — into urban areas, which would in turn push migrants into “geographically harsher…[and] more remote and hazardousterrain.

By the year 2000, Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the then-named Immigration and Naturalization Service, told The Arizona Republic that “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.” Time would prove that it was quite the contrary: Many migrants continued to endure those risks and are still willing to do so — leading to more deaths.

You can’t really carry enough water with you, so people will get lost and die of dehydration,” says Kreyche, who’s been helping migrants since the 1980s, when an influx of Central American refugees arrived at the U.S. border fleeing civil wars. Later, Kreyche moved to Arizona and helped the Tucson Samaritans, another humanitarian aid group working in the borderlands. Two years ago, he joined Humane Borders’ efforts to maintain the database in an effort to find migration patterns and better focus his life-saving efforts.

Over the years, Kreyche and hundreds of other volunteers have tried to mitigate the increased risks by stashing water deep into the desert and distributing posters in churches, shelters, and other locations south of the border that list the dangers that migrants face trying to cross illegally into the U.S. At times, Border Patrol agents have interfered with those efforts. In 2012, for instance, a motion-activated camera captured an agent kicking over five water jugs meant for the migrants. But in recent years the agency had abided by an informal agreement allowing migrants to seek medical help at the No More Deaths camp without fear of arrest.

For Kreyche, last week’s raid marks a new era in how the enforcement agency operates. “They’ve harassed that camp on other occasions but not to that extent,” he says. In a past incident, Border Patrol agents stationed themselves on a hill overlooking the camp for several days. Most striking about the recent action, he adds, is that the entire operation showed all the signs of being staged. Instead of arresting the four men at the border when they were first spotted, agents tracked them for four days through the desert and then swooped in using an unprecedented” show of force. “It’s ridiculous to have all those vehicles and agents out there – never mind the helicopter,” says Kreyche.

Vicente Paco, a spokesperson with the Tucson sector Border Patrol, says they had no opportunity to arrest the men before they reached the camp. The migrants, he explains, were walking too fast for the agents to catch them.

Still, No More Deaths volunteers are concerned that the siege-like display will frighten other migrants from seeking potentially life-saving help at the camp. For Kreyche, that means more lives will be lost to the desert; measured in a cluster of red dots on a map of southern Arizona so dense that in some parts it appears black.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN. 

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