US-MEXICO: Humanitarian Aid Criminalised at the Border
By Valeria Fernández, IPS
Transporting a migrant in despair to a hospital could mean a volunteer is charged with human smuggling. A simple act of kindness like leaving water in the desert can be subject to penalties as well.
"We’re being intimidated and criminalised as humanitarians," said Walt Staton, a 27-year-old volunteer with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group.
Staton knows this firsthand. He was convicted on Jun. 3 by a 12-person jury of "knowingly littering" for leaving unopened water jugs on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson, Arizona.
Arizona, the main gateway for undocumented migration into the U.S., is ground zero to a human rights crisis, according to border activists. In the summer, triple-digit temperatures in the remote Sonoran desert have caused a deadly toll.
Over the past decade, it is estimated that at least 5,000 men, women and children have lost their lives attempting to cross the U.S-Mexico border.
No More Deaths (NMD) has been providing help in the form of water and food to migrants. This June, for the sixth consecutive year, they set up a campsite 24 kms from the border with volunteers from all over the country.
Water can be a lifesaver in some of the most remote areas of the treacherous Sonoran desert, explained Steve Jonston, 64, a volunteer with NMD.
Daily, volunteers set up hundreds of gallon-sized water containers at drop points in some of the most heavily transited migrant trails. Once the jugs have been used, they recycle them.
By the time some of the migrants find them, they have spent from three to four days lost in the desert, Jonston said.
"To ticket Walt Staton for littering would be to ticket an ambulance for speeding," he told IPS.
But not everybody agrees on the approach.
"There’s other ways it can be done," said Michael Hawkes, elected director and manager of the Buenos Aires Refuge. "Just leaving the jugs there is like leaving trash, it is like a McDonald´s happy meal in front of your yard, it is trash."
Hawkes said garbage left by migrants during their trek has been a challenge for preserving the 117,000 acres refuge. He believes Border Patrol beacons, which allow migrants to call for rescue, are more effective than putting water.
The refuge currently allows for at least two water stations set up in the area by another volunteer group. But Jonston argues that’s not nearly enough.
During the summer, temperatures reach up to 115 F (45 C) in the desert. Drinking as much as a gallon of water per hour might be necessary to survive, said Mario Escalante, a spokesperson for the Tucson Border Patrol.
"Most of the people attempting to cross don’t have a clue where they are, they’ve never been here before," said Escalante.
Smugglers lie to migrants, giving them the false hope that they’ll find water in the desert, he said. It’s not uncommon for them to abandon migrants to their own luck, he added.
Camila Chigo, 24, was barely conscious when the Border Patrol found her on a side road. The migrant from Chiapas, Mexico was lost and alone for four days and later spent three hospitalised for heatstroke.
"I almost died," said Chigo, who spoke with IPS in a migrant shelter after being deported to Nogales, Sonora. Her arms revealed scars and scratches from the desert vegetation.
Humanitarian activists claim that the increased fortification of the border through the construction of a fence and deployment of manpower is to blame for stories like Chigo’s.
"The border has been built in the most intentional way to use the desert as a deterrent, as a weapon that has cost thousands of lives," said Staton.
And extreme heat is not the only threat. As the business of human smuggling is getting more lucrative, migrants are often subject to kidnappings and women are exposed to sexual abuse and rape by border bandits.
Yet the Border Patrol in Tucson cites a decrease in the number of arrests this fiscal year –which began in October 2008 - as a sign of success of the border strategy.
Apprehensions are down from 235,800 in 2008 to 164,600 on 2009.
The death toll on the 262 miles of the Tucson border has increased from 79 fatalities in 2008 to 83 this year.
"The migrant death rate is going up. It’s not necessarily the total number of deaths, it’s the ratio of the number of people that are crossing and dying," said Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, a humanitarian group that provides water in the desert at 102 water stations.
Hoover claims increased enforcement is pushing people into more desolate areas, making it harder to reach them with aid. One of these main points is the Tohono O’odham nation land.
Mike Wilson, a Native American who has been leaving water tanks in the reservation, said that recently, tribal police officers told him to take them down.
"I respectfully declined," said Wilson, only to find out later that somebody had taken them away. Now he’s substituting them with gallon jugs.
Humanitarian aid volunteers claim things have gotten more difficult in the last four years.
In 2005, volunteers Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were accused of human smuggling after attempting to transport a group of injured migrants to the hospital. The charges against them were later dropped. Their case was the catalyst for launching a campaign to bring awareness called "Humanitarian aid is not a Crime".
Staton’s is not the first case to go to court for littering charges.
In 2008, Dan Millis, another NMD volunteer, found the body of a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador in the desert. Motivated by the tragedy, two days later Millis was leaving water jugs around the migrant trails where he found her and was ticketed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He refused to pay the 175-dollar fine and fought the littering misdemeanor charge on the grounds that humanitarian aid is not a crime.
The U.S federal attorney´s office would not comment on Staton’s case since his sentencing is pending for Aug. 4. He could face one year in jail or up to 10,000 dollars in fines.
Staton is planning to go to seminary school by then to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. He hopes his story brings attention to the human rights crisis on the border.
In 2008, the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations issued a report stating that the United States has failed to adhere to its international obligations to make the human rights of migrants a national priority.
"It’s the responsibility of the people to come out and say we won’t let these people die," said Staton. "Maybe we can’t drive them somewhere, but we are just not going to let them die."
Behind The Arizona Immigration Law: GOP Game to Swipe the November Election
Monday 26 April 2010
by: Greg Palast, t r u t h o u t Report
Phoenix - Don't be fooled. The way the media plays the story, it was a wave of racist, anti-immigrant hysteria that moved Arizona Republicans to pass a sick little law, signed last week, requiring every person in the state to carry papers proving they are US citizens.
I don't buy it. Anti-Hispanic hysteria has always been as much a part of Arizona as the saguaro cactus and excessive air-conditioning.
What's new here is not the politicians' fear of a xenophobic "Teabag" uprising.
What moved GOP Governor Jan Brewer to sign the Soviet-style show-me-your-papers law is the exploding number of legal Hispanics, US citizens all, who are daring to vote - and daring to vote Democratic by more than two-to-one. Unless this demographic locomotive is halted, Arizona Republicans know their party will soon be electoral toast. Or, if you like, tortillas.
In 2008, working for "Rolling Stone" with civil rights attorney Bobby Kennedy, our team flew to Arizona to investigate what smelled like an electoral pogrom against Chicano voters . . . directed by one Jan Brewer.
Brewer, then secretary of state, had organized a racially loaded purge of the voter rolls that would have made Katherine Harris blush. Beginning after the 2004 election, under Brewer's command, no fewer than 100,000 voters, overwhelmingly Hispanic, were blocked from registering to vote. In 2005, the first year of the Great Brown-Out, one in three Phoenix residents found their registration applications rejected.
That statistic caught my attention. Voting or registering to vote if you're not a citizen is a felony, a big-time jail-time crime. And arresting such criminal voters is easy: After all, they give their names and addresses.
So I asked Brewer's office, had she busted a single one of these thousands of allegedly illegal voters? Did she turn over even one name to the feds for prosecution?
No, not one.
Which raises the question: Were these disenfranchised voters the criminal, non-citizens that Brewer tagged them to be, or just not-quite-white voters given the Jose Crow treatment, entrapped in document-chase trickery?
The answer was provided by a federal prosecutor who was sent on a crazy hunt all over the Western mesas looking for these illegal voters. "We took over 100 complaints, we investigated for almost two years, I didn't find one prosecutable voter fraud case."
This prosecutor, David Iglesias, is a prosecutor no more. When he refused to fabricate charges of illegal voting among immigrants, his firing was personally ordered by the president of the United States, George W. Bush, under orders from his boss, Karl Rove.
Iglesias' jurisdiction was next door, in New Mexico, but he told me that Rove and the Republican chieftains were working nationwide to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria with public busts of illegal voters, even though there were none.
"They wanted some splashy pre-election indictments," Iglesias told me. The former prosecutor, himself a Republican, paid the price when he stood up to this vicious attack on citizenship.
But Secretary of State Brewer followed the Rove plan to a T. The weapon she used to slice the Arizona voter rolls was a 2004 law, known as "Prop 200," which required proof of citizenship to register. It is important to see the Republicans' latest legislative horror show, sanctioning cops to stop residents and prove citizenship, as just one more step in the party's desperate plan to impede Mexican-Americans from marching to the ballot box.
(By the way, no one elected Brewer. Weirdly, Barack Obama placed her in office last year when, for reasons known only to the Devil and Rahm Emanuel, the president appointed Arizona's Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano to his cabinet, which automatically moved Republican Brewer into the Governor's office.)
State Senator Russell Pearce, the Republican sponsor of the latest ID law, gave away his real intent, blocking the vote, when he said, "There is a massive effort under way to register illegal aliens in this country."
How many? Pearce's PR flak told me, five million. All Democrats, too. Again, I asked Pearce's office to give me their names and addresses from their phony registration forms. I'd happily make a citizens arrest of each one, on camera. Pearce didn't have five million names. He didn't have five. He didn't have one.
The horde of five million voters who swam the Rio Grande just to vote for Obama was calculated on a Republican website extrapolating from the number of Mexicans in a border town who refused jury service because they were not citizens. Not one, in fact, had registered to vote: they had registered to drive. They had obtained licenses as required by the law.
The illegal voters, "wetback" welfare moms, and alien job thieves are just GOP website wet dreams, but their mythic PR power helps the party's electoral hacks chop away at voter rolls and civil rights with little more than a whimper from the Democrats.
Indeed, one reason, I discovered, that some Democrats are silent is that they are in on the game themselves. In New Mexico, Democratic Party bosses tossed away ballots of Pueblo Indians to cut native influence in party primaries.
But what’s wrong with requiring folks to prove they're American if they want to vote and live in America? The answer: because the vast majority of perfectly legal voters and residents who lack ID sufficient for Ms. Brewer and Mr. Pearce are citizens of color, citizens of poverty.
According to a study by professor Matt Barreto, of Washington State University, minority citizens are half as likely as whites to have the government ID. The numbers are dreadfully worse when income is factored in.
Just outside Phoenix, without Brewer's or Pearce's help, I did locate one of these evil un-American voters, that is, someone who could not prove her citizenship: 100-year-old Shirley Preiss. Her US birth certificate was nowhere to be found, as it never existed.
In Phoenix, I stopped in at the Maricopa County prison where Sheriff Joe Arpaio houses the captives of his campaign to stop illegal immigration. Arpaio, who under the new Arizona law will be empowered to choose his targets for citizenship testing, is already facing federal indictment for his racially charged and legally suspect methods.
Ok, I admit, I was a little nervous, passing through the iron doors with a big sign, "NOTICE: ILLEGAL ALIENS ARE PROHIBITED FROM VISITING ANYONE IN THIS JAIL." I mean, Grandma Palast snuck into the USA via Windsor, Canada. We Palasts are illegal as they come, but Arpaio's sophisticated deportee-sniffer didn't stop this white boy from entering his sanctum.
But that's the point, isn't it? Not to stop non-citizens from entering Arizona - after all, who else would care for the country club lawn? - but to harass folks of the wrong color: Democratic blue.