Activists Leaving Life-Saving Water for Immigrants Face Opposition

by Cara on September 27, 2010

in assholes, bigotry, human rights, immigration, race and racism

Trigger Warning for anti-immigrant hatred and discussion of border crossing deaths.

Found via Jill’s brief post on the issue, this story in the NY Times about people who leave water for undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S. border in the desert isn’t exactly news, but it is needed reporting on an ongoing issue. The water is left by activists because without it, immigrants become severely dehydrated over the long journey, resulting in serious illness and sometimes death. But the activists are being issued with tickets by federal Fish and Wildlife Officers, and strongly fought by those who oppose immigration and immigrants’ rights:

Two years ago, Daniel J. Millis was ticketed for littering after he was caught by a federal Fish and Wildlife officer placing gallon jugs of water for passing immigrants in the brush of this 118,000-acre preserve.

“I do extreme sports, and I know I couldn’t walk as far as they do,” said Mr. Millis, driving through the refuge recently. “It’s no surprise people are dying.”

Mr. Millis, 31, was not the only one to get a ticket. Fourteen other volunteers for Tucson-based organizations that provide aid to immigrants crossing from Mexico to the United States were similarly cited. Most of the cases were later dropped, but Mr. Millis and another volunteer for a religious group called No More Deaths were convicted of defacing the refuge with their water jug drops.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit weighed in on Mr. Millis’s appeal this month, ruling that it was “ambiguous as to whether purified water in a sealed bottle intended for human consumption meets the definition of ‘garbage.’ ” Voting 2-to-1, a three-judge panel overturned Mr. Millis’s conviction.

The issue remains far from settled, though. The court ruled that Mr. Millis probably could have been charged under a different statute, something other than littering. And the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to forbid anyone to leave gallon jugs of water in the refuge — a policy backed by this state’s immigration hardliners, who say comforting immigrants will only encourage them to cross.

From 2002 to 2009, 25 illegal immigrants died while passing through the refuge’s rolling hills, which are flanked by mountains and are home to pronghorns, coyotes, rattlesnakes and four different kinds of skunks. Throughout southern Arizona, the death toll totaled 1,715 from 2002 to 2009, with this year’s hot temperatures putting deaths at a record-breaking pace.

Again, water is being left for a reason. It is being left because without it, people die.

So look, I support environmental protection probably a lot more than your average person. But I don’t support acts of environmental protection when they trample on human rights. And I mean legitimate human rights — the right to movement, the right for indigenous people to live on their own land, and the right to live, not the “right” to own ipods and drill for oil and create massive amounts of garbage. Human life is not separate from the environment, and resources literally necessary to continued survival are not litter. Daniel Millis says it more effectively and concisely (trigger warning):

As for spoiling the environment, he said he collected as many jugs as he left behind. He also recounts how he found the dead body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl near the refuge days before he was ticketed.

“People are part of the environment,” he said.

Further, immigrants aren’t choosing to cross the border at a wildlife refuge because it’s convenient and they hate the environment. They’re crossing there because it’s virtually the least convenient location possible — and therefore, one of the few that the U.S. government hasn’t decided to block off with a giant fence. People are crossing here precisely because the U.S. government knows it’s deadly — because it assumes that people wouldn’t dare cross in a deadly location, and then cruelly ignores mountains of evidence to the contrary. People cross here because it’s just about the only place left. And it’s just about the only place left because it’s assumed in the U.S. that if you’re going to cross the border illegally, you deserve to die.

And when “immigration hardliners” say that giving people water so that they may go on living is providing “comfort” to those entering the country illegally, they deliberately attempt to cover up the fact that they are going to try to enter the country, anyway, “comfort” or not. What they’re stating is that it’s better for immigrants to die than to make it safely into the United States.

But opponents say the water drops are encouraging immigrants to continue to come across the border illegally. The critics say there ought to be Border Patrol agents stationed near the water stations to arrest those who are crossing illegally as soon as they finish drinking. So furious are some at the practice of aiding immigrants that they have slashed open the water jugs, crushed them with their vehicles or simply poured the water into the desert.

People are dying because they don’t have enough water during the long journey across the border, and some are responding by purposely destroying the water they could use to keep on living.

Again, the lesson is that if you come into the U.S. without papers, you deserve to die.

No matter who you are. The people risking death out in the desert aren’t walking miles and miles and miles to get to the U.S. because they want to “ruin our country.” For fuck’s sake, what kind of country is it, anyway, when we care more about enforcing the notion that this land is our property than we care about human life? How much more ruined could we get? Terrorists are the very least of our problems, when we’ve managed to sink so very low. But all that stories like these go to show yet again is that this isn’t about terrorists. It’s about making sure that nobody lacking a fancy, really expensive permission slip gets to come into the country without having to risk their lives. It’s about showing people how less than human we think they are because of the color of their skin and the language(s) they primarily speak and the country they were born in.

And if this doesn’t show how sub-human anti-immigrant crusaders think the people who they already refer to with the dehumanizing slur “illegals” to be, I don’t know what will. Because those we think of as human, we think of as having a right to life. Those we think of as human, we think of as deserving water.

But to many, if you want to come into the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, you deserve to die.

I keep repeating it because it needs to be repeated. I keep repeating it because this hatred, this bile, this extraordinary racism and xenophobia and nativism needs to be confronted. Because it’s costing lives. People are dying. Look at the numbers above — 1,700 lives in eight years, all in a single state. And the government and people of the U.S. are letting them die. And those behind building fences where it’s safe to cross and crushing water jugs that could and do save lives want them to die. They’d rather have them dead than have them in our country.

The next time someone tells you that it’s no big deal to refer to people as “illegals,” to strip them of their humanity, this is where talking about and treating people as though they are not human beings gets us. Just as countless others have argued and warned. It gets us dead bodies and crushed water jugs and tickets for some of the only U.S. citizens who are willing to stand up to the atrocity. It gets us a failure to feel compassion for those willing to risk their lives to find work. It gets us a refusal to listen to their voices, and an inability to even find their voices in mainstream contexts because nobody cares and anyway they are too afraid to speak.  It gets us to a place where people in the United States think that being an undocumented immigrant is such a horrific crime, those who are undocumented immigrants deserve to die.

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{ 4 comments }

1 Shiyiya September 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm

My aunt and uncle and cousin, who live in Hereford in very southern Arizona, think like this. My cousin – who is seventeen and running for homecoming queen at her small-town high school – made a comment about patrolling with shotguns. (I’m sure my great-aunt Joann, who informed me that Obama is a Muslim Communist, would agree. She lives in Washington, though, so no shooting ‘illegals’ for her.)

It perplexes and frightens me that people can be so… lacking in empathy.

2 notemily September 28, 2010 at 1:30 am

Thank you for writing this. It needs to be said, over and over, until people hear it.

3 Mckenzie September 28, 2010 at 2:40 pm
4 WaterStationPrez September 29, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I am the president of Water Station, the organization that does in California what No More Deaths (& Samaritans & Humane Borders) do in Arizona. We set out 55 gallon drums that we stock with boxes of sealed one-gallon water bottles. Between March and October, we check them for usage and damage at least twice a month (some are checked weekly).

No one makes the decision to cross based on the availability of a few hundred water stations. No one would stay away if the stations were removed.

We have licenses and permits from the BLM and CA State Parks, as well as a few other smaller agencies, and we have an excellent relationship with the Border Patrol. I have met with the Chief Patrol Agent for the El Centro and we routinely check in with field agents.

As with all of the Arizona groups of which I aware, we also pick up litter around our stations and on the trails. Most humanitarians are also environmentalists.

In the eleven years we have been in existence, between 5,500 and 8,000 people have died crossing the border (the wide discrepancy has to do with who is counting and the fact that there are many, many people who have been reported missing, but whose remains have not been found).

I have walked where people have died. Theirs were lonely, slow, agonizing deaths. I don’t know how many people we have saved; I do know that we will continue until people stop dying in the desert. We are ordinary people – a physicist, a chicken farmer, several teachers, college students – of all races and many ethnicities. We are proud Americans who simply want to prevent people from dying in our back yard.

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