In summer, the southern Arizona desert is among the most merciless environments on earth. Temperatures spike at 120 degrees. Shade is scarce. Each year hundreds of undocumented migrants die trying to walk north from Mexico.
The grisly accounts of survivors and the quickly-mummified evidence on the ground suggest that a cooked brain and water-starved sensory neurons must know something of hell. The mouths stuffed with rocks, the claw marks--it happens. There are files.
For the past five years, the Tucson-based humanitarian group, No More Deaths, has worked to reduce such misery by providing migrants with food, medical care, and--most importantly--emergency water. The group has a bumper sticker: “Humanitarian aid is never a crime.”
Maybe that bumper sticker should read “almost never”: two No More Deaths volunteers, Walt Staton and Dan Millis, have been convicted of littering--for leaving drinking water in the desert.
Staton, 27, was found guilty on June 3 of littering federal property after he admitted to leaving jugs of drinking water on migrant trails that cross the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. He faces up to one year in prison and a $10,000 fine when he is sentenced on August 11. Millis, who was convicted in a similar case last September, has appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court. Staton also plans an appeal.
The two cases focus attention on a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border that is arguably the direct--and intentional--result of federal policy.
In 1994, the federal Southwest Border Strategy began to deliberately push immigration and smuggling routes out of cities and into remote, rugged areas like the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The goal, according to a 2001 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, was "to make it so difficult and costly for aliens to attempt illegal entry that fewer individuals would try."
Immigration statistics are notoriously inexact, but no one believes that the flood of undocumented immigrants has dried up since 1994. But crossing the desert has become more difficult, and plenty of people are dying in the attempt: the Department of Homeland Security recorded 1,058 migrant deaths from 2001-2007; humanitarian groups put the number since 1994 at 5,000.
In light of those numbers, Staton and Millis say they intend to keep putting out water in the desert. (Each says, by the way, that the number of empty jugs they pick up is greater than the number of full ones they put out--a net reduction in “litter.”)
Staton's attorney, William Walker, estimates that the government has spent at least $50,000 to prosecute his client for littering. Which Staton insists he did not do.
"II was just trying to save lives," Staton said. "I was trying to end the death and suffering in the desert. The best we can understand, the United States wants to enforce the border by making the desert itself a deterrent." He stated that he is not against the law for littering, just the application of the law to humanitarian actions.
And in a press release issued after Staton’s conviction, No More Deaths said it “will continue to provide life-saving aid to those in need, and to do our part to clean up the desert. The era of border enforcement that uses death and human rights abuses as a deterrent must come to an end.”