Volunteers Convicted for Leaving Water Out for Migrants

“I didn’t understand that humanitarian aid was criminal,” said Zaachila Orozco.

Todd Miller

Volunteers with humanitarian aid group No More Deaths leave water and food in the desert for migrants, a federal crime. (Photo courtesy of Carrot Quinn)

TUC­SON, ARIZ. — In a crowd­ed court­room Jan­u­ary 15, defense lawyer Chris Dupont asked Michael West, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife offi­cer at the Cabeza Pri­eta Nation­al Wildlife Refuge in the Ari­zona desert, if he was aware that bor­der crossers were dying in the refuge. Had he found bod­ies him­self? Yes,” West affirmed. Pressed for an exact num­ber, West said he didn’t know.

In total, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have seen more than 7,000 fatalities (a conservative estimate) since 1994.

Made­line Huse, a vol­un­teer with the Ari­zona-based human­i­tar­i­an aid orga­ni­za­tion No More Deaths, has a clear­er mem­o­ry of the bod­ies she’s seen along the bor­der. She tes­ti­fied two days lat­er that, in just one month of vol­un­teer­ing in 2016, she and those with her encoun­tered more than a dozen people’s remains. Expert wit­ness Ed McCul­lough, a retired geol­o­gist who maps migrant routes in the desert, described Growler Val­ley in the Cabeza Pri­eta refuge as a trail of deaths.”

On Aug. 13, 2017, in the Growler Val­ley, West stopped Huse and fel­low vol­un­teers Natal­ie Hoff­man, Oona Hol­comb and Zaachi­la Oroz­co as they were leav­ing food and water for migrants dur­ing one of the dead­liest sum­mers on record. By year’s end, the remains of 32 peo­ple would be found on the refuge.

Charged with enter­ing a nation­al wildlife refuge with­out a per­mit, aban­don­ing prop­er­ty and (in the case of Hoff­man, the dri­ver) oper­at­ing a vehi­cle in a wilder­ness area, the four were fac­ing up to six months in prison. Dupont’s defense team argued that the vol­un­teers’ sin­cere­ly held val­ues com­pelled them to aid those who were dying, and that they did not know this was a pros­e­cutable offense.

In total, the U.S.-Mexico bor­der­lands have seen more than 7,000 fatal­i­ties (a con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate) since the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion first deployed the cur­rent bor­der enforce­ment strat­e­gy of deter­rence in 1994. More walls, more sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies and more armed agents (from 4,000 in 1994 to 21,000 in 2014) pre­vent­ed access to the much safer cross­ing areas in and around cities such as El Paso, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and San Diego — push­ing peo­ple to take longer routes through des­o­late areas, like Cabeza Prieta.

Accord­ing to anthro­pol­o­gist Jason De León, who directs the Undoc­u­ment­ed Migra­tion Project, There’s no way you can car­ry enough water” to make the six-day hike through the desert. You would need 10 gal­lons, he says, and the most you can pos­si­bly car­ry is four.”

It was in this con­text that No More Deaths formed in 2004, to pro­vide direct aid and raise pub­lic aware­ness of the bor­der death cri­sis. Around the same time, the Bor­der Patrol opened up Camp Grip, a base on the Cabeza Pri­eta refuge, and began to work more close­ly with Fish and Wildlife offi­cers like West. Bor­der Patrol’s F‑150 trucks and ATVs began to rou­tine­ly criss­cross the pro­tect­ed wilder­ness, and the agency installed a net­work of cam­eras. It was one of those cam­eras that alert­ed West to the No More Deaths vol­un­teers’ white pick­up truck in 2017.

Unaware they’d been spot­ted, the four vol­un­teers parked the truck and hiked out into the desert, car­ry­ing heavy back­packs full of water and cans of beans into the unbear­able 110-degree heat. They couldn’t sit down to rest; the ground was siz­zling hot. Jump­ing chol­la cac­ti punc­tured their shoes, and they stopped sev­er­al times to extract the thorns. When they reached the drop-off point, they found cloth­ing, shoes and back­packs left behind by bor­der crossers. You feel some­one else’s pres­ence,” Oroz­co testified.

When West got in his patrol car to track down the pick­up, he may not have real­ized he was about to be a key actor in the Trump administration’s esca­lat­ing crack­down on human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance on the bor­der. In June 2017, Bor­der Patrol had raid­ed the No More Deaths camp in Ari­va­ca, Ariz., and arrest­ed four undoc­u­ment­ed bor­der crossers who were receiv­ing med­ical treat­ment. A month lat­er, the wildlife refuge (with input from the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or and Depart­ment of Defense) amend­ed the per­mit stip­u­la­tions with a new para­graph pro­hibit­ing peo­ple from leav­ing food and water — inten­tion­al­ly tar­get­ing No More Deaths.

West wait­ed at the white pick­up for the vol­un­teers, ques­tioned them and asked them to leave the refuge. He con­fis­cat­ed the cache of water jugs and beans the vol­un­teers had dropped off and took the crates to the refuge office. There, he pho­tographed the prop­er­ty,” lin­ing the crates up side by side as if he had bust­ed drug run­ners. In Decem­ber 2017, the Trump Jus­tice Depart­ment would use his report as evi­dence in fil­ing charges.

On Jan­u­ary 18, Mag­is­trate Judge Bernar­do Velas­co found the four vol­un­teers guilty on all counts, rebuk­ing them for defil­ing a pris­tine nature” (no men­tion that Bor­der Patrol roads have been decried by envi­ron­men­tal groups). The tri­al was the first of four No More Deaths cas­es to be adju­di­cat­ed this year. One defen­dant, Scott War­ren, faces felony charges and up to 20 years in prison for pro­vid­ing med­ical assistance.

I didn’t under­stand,” said Oroz­co dur­ing her tes­ti­mo­ny, that human­i­tar­i­an aid was criminal.”

Todd Miller is the author of Empire of Bor­ders: The Expan­sion of the U.S. Bor­der Around the World, Storm­ing the Wall: Cli­mate Change, Migra­tion and Home­land Secu­ri­ty and Bor­der Patrol Nation: Dis­patch­es From the Front Lines of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. He has writ­ten on bor­der and immi­gra­tion issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, and else­where. You can fol­low him on twit­ter @memomiller and view more of his work at his website.
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