Court Criminalizes Humanitarian Aid to Refugees Crossing Desert Along U.S. Southern Border

Interview with Isabel Guerra, a volunteer with the group No More Deaths, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

On Jan. 18, four volunteers with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes were convicted of several federal misdemeanor charges for leaving water, packaged snacks, cans of beans and socks in the desert for immigrants trying to cross the desert spanning the U.S.–Mexico border. The group operates in the Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge, which encompasses more than 800,000 acres along the Arizona-Sonora border.
The refuge is part of the Ajo Corridor, which extends from the border to the town of Ajo, Arizona, a desert region that has been most deadly for immigrants trying to cross into the U.S. undetected, unlike the thousands of families who have arrived on the border in the past few years who turn themselves in to border patrol agents in hopes of claiming asylum.
The No More Deaths volunteers were arrested in the summer of 2017, shortly after posting a video of a Fish & Wildlife official emptying several gallon containers of water onto the ground. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Isabel Guerra, a volunteer with No More Deaths. She describes the work her group does, the unforgiving desert terrain where they provide humanitarian aid, and what’s next for the volunteers who are facing six months in jail.

ISABEL GUERRA: We’ll go with a group, a group of volunteers – Spanish speakers, folks with medical experience and folks with experience with experience and working out in that area, having done volunteer work before, just familiarity with the landscape. And we’ll go out. We’ll hike. Depending on what trails we’re working with, it’ll be half a mile to a mile up to stretches of seven- to eight-mile hikes, carrying heavy loads of water. Most people will carry four to six gallons of water in their backpack, not counting their own personal water. One gallon of water is about eight pounds, so yeah, we’re hiking out there with quite a bit of weight, in the desert sun.

Essentially what crossers are hoping to find is just to go around the checkpoint stations, so not only is there a border wall up in the major ports of entry, there’s a ton of surveillance proximate to the ports of entry, but then there are checkpoints up the major highways, so folks are forced to walk around in the remote regions to get past the checkpoints where Border Patrol has stationed up on the highways. That’s 50-plus miles, 100 miles off the border line with Mexico.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Isabel Guerra, you said nine volunteers with No More Deaths have been arrested and four went to trial last week. Please tell us what happened.

ISABEL GUERRA: They have federal misdemeanors – littering, abandonment of property on the Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge and trespassing on unauthorized roads. The original dates of their offenses goes back to the summer of 2017, so it hasn’t been a recent incident. There’s been a long struggle with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife agency that governs the refuge to allow humanitarian aid to be done in the refuge. So for many months there has been a back and forth, meeting with the supervisors of the refuge, meeting with the officers, having discussion about what could be done. The Fish & Wildlife said “no” to the humanitarian aid because the Border Patrol has beacons out in the desert and they claim that those beacons provide enough aid for migrants walking and that there’s no need for additional resources out there to prevent death.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How do the beacons work?

ISABEL GUERRA: So the beacons are several dozen feet high. They emit a blue glowing light for, I believe, a radius of under ten miles. The idea behind that is that folks can see this flashing light, are attracted to it, and then press a button for a rescue response with Border Patrol. And at that point if you press the button, the expectation is that Border Patrol will come out to your location, be able to find you, and well, arrest you and you move forward in that process of deportation.

However, a lot of our data, just the number of times the button is pressed and the lack of response from the Border Patrol is significant that those beacons themselves don’t work. Their response is really, really minimal. And any kind of search and rescue projects that they’re doing is super-minimal compared to the numbers that we’ve been able to collect with our data of folks passing through these areas – [human] remains found in the desert. Their projects alone are not enough to address the issue of people dying out in the desert.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How many border crossers have died in recent years?

ISABEL GUERRA: In the year 2017 – that summer when the volunteers were arrested – there were 128 known migrant deaths in Arizona. Fifty-eight were found in the area around the Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge and in the Ajo Corridor. That accounts for 45 percent of all the human remains recovered in Arizona. That is a really dramatic percentage of folks that cross the entire border concentrated in that area. That’s why our work in the Ajo Corridor specifically is so significant, because that’s where the highest concentrations of deaths are happening. It’s a death sentence to be forced to walk through the desert and what our organization, what we believe in, is that no one should be forced to die this way.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, they’re facing six months in jail. Are they appealing?

ISABEL GUERRA: So it’s still a conversation with the defendants and with our organization. The plan, I believe, is to appeal and continue fighting this. We want to invite everyone into the discussion of how – with this case saying it’s a criminal offense to provide food and water and aid to another human being – what does that mean for the rest of us? What are we going to be doing as we see our country moving in this direction, finding these kinds of humanitarian acts to be criminal?

For more information on No More Deaths, visit nomoredeaths.org.

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