United States Border Patrol agents are routinely destroying life-saving water, food and other supplies left by volunteers for undocumented immigrants entering the United States from Mexico, while also harassing and intimidating activists who attempt to save migrants’ lives.
A newly-published report from the humanitarian aid and activist groups No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos details how Border Patrol agents are destroying thousands of gallons of water left along migrant routes in the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, which feature some of the most inhospitable terrain and climate on Earth. Thousands of migrants have died of exposure, dehydration and heat-related illnesses while entering or attempting to enter the US over the past two decades. Despite this, Border Patrol adheres to a policy known as Prevention Through Deterrence in a bid to discourage illegal border crossings, funneling migrants into the most remote and hostile terrain, extending their already perilous journeys and increasing the likelihood that people — especially the youngest and oldest ones — will die.
The Sonoran Desert is extremely rugged and arid with few water sources and summer temperatures that routinely soar above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43°C). Medical professionals recommend border crossers drink between 5-12 liters (1.3-3.1 gallons) of water daily, but few migrants carry more than 7 liters (2 gallons) for a journey that can take days to weeks to complete. Using the very real prospect of death as a deterrent, Border Patrol agents from 2012 to 2015 destroyed at least 3,586 gallon jugs of water in the 800-square-mile (2,070-square-kilometer) area studied in the new report.
“These actions condemn border crossers to suffering, death and disappearance,” the report asserts.
Miguel, from Sinaloa, Mexico, has seen destroyed food and water supplies left along migrant routes during each of his four border crossings. Speaking of the Border Patrol agents, he told the report’s authors that:
“They break the bottles so you can’t even use them… I needed water, some of the other people in the group needed water, but we found them destroyed. [I felt] helplessness, rage. They must hate us. It’s their work to capture us, but we are humans. And they don’t treat us like humans. It’s hate is what it is. They break the bottles out of hate.”
Two migrants from Guatemala described dropping their backpacks, filled with life-sustaining food and water, while being chased by Border Patrol agents for half a day. Having successfully evaded the officers, the men returned to the spot where they left their belongings to find their water dumped out and their food strewn across the desert. When asked why they thought Border Patrol would further jeopardize their lives this way, one of the men said:
“They want to kill us. They are murderers. They treat us no better than animals. They know that without food and without water and without rest we will die. We are dogs to them. We have families, and they have families too but they never think of that, or see that we could be the same as them. The difference is that they don’t have to leave their homes because they have what they need here [in the UnitedStates] . . . It’s not that people are dying, they are killing us. We are being killed.”
It’s not only Border Patrol agents who are destroying life-saving food, water and other supplies left to aid border crossers. Hunters, right-wing militia groups and others, including wild and livestock animals, have all destroyed a small percentage of the goods. The vast bulk of the destruction, however, has been committed by members of an agency that has — laughably, critics say — portrayed itself as a humanitarian organization dedicated to simultaneously safeguarding the laws and citizenry of the United States as well as the lives of people trying to enter the country illegally. Responding to video of agents cutting up water bottles, Border Patrol Division Chief Raleigh Leonard told No More Deaths that such action “doesn’t represent this organization.”
“That’s not who we are,” Leonard insisted.
But video evidence and a former Border Patrol agent anonymously quoted in the report say otherwise:
“I remember people smashing and stepping on water bottles, I remember that being imparted to us in one way or another. I also remember that the logic behind that, the logic that was imparted to us with that action, was that you stomp on their water, and ransack their food cache, in order to expedite their apprehension.”
The policy of Prevention Through Deterrence, which has been agency practice since the 1990s, posits that anything making a migrant’s journey more dangerous or difficult could be considered for use as a law enforcement tactic. In practice, this means that the border wall and increased and increasingly militarized border patrols and highway checkpoints are forcing migrants to undertake longer, more perilous journeys — and that more people are dying as a result of US government policy. American taxpayer dollars are funding actions that are killing men, women and children seeking refuge in a nation of immigrants.
In addition to destroying life-saving supplies, Border Patrol agents are targeting the life-savers as they attempt to tend to the border crossers. Activists have reported threats of physical violence or arrest, aggressive interrogations, detentions, surveillance and stalking by Border Patrol Agents. On June 15, 2017, dozens of agents conducted a military-style siege and raid, replete with air support, on a No More Deaths medical aid base camp during a record heat wave. One volunteer said an agent “put his hand on the handle of his gun and said, ‘you better not follow me; if you do, I’m gonna assume you’re attacking me and it’s not going to end well.’”
Chelsea Halstead, deputy director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, a migrant advocacy group which works with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office to identify those who die in the desert, told the Arizona Republic that the raid on the medical camp was “the equivalent of shooting down a boat in the ocean that has refugees on it and letting it sink.” Border Patrol defended the raid and said an “aggravated felon” was among the “aliens” detained at the camp.
Activists have been arrested and charged with felonies for aiding desperate migrants. On July 9, 2005, No More Deaths volunteers Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz found a group of migrants who needed emergency medical care after traveling without food or water for days during a week in which 78 people died trying to cross the border. While driving them to a clinic in Tucson, they were stopped and arrested by Border Patrol agents. The pair were later charged with felony aiding and abetting and felony conspiracy. They faced up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, but in 2007 a federal judge dismissed all charged against them.
Despite the significant dangers faced by those who help undocumented immigrants, No More Deaths alone distributed some 31,558 gallon jugs of water along migration trails in the Sonoran Desert between 2012 and 2015. This aid is crucial to saving lives, but according to No More Deaths, only a radically different approach to border enforcement — one in which the desert isn’t used as a deadly weapon in a bid to stem illegal crossings — can completely stop the dying.
“Humanitarian aid will never solve the crisis of death and disappearance in the borderlands of the US Southwest,” the report concludes. “This man-made catastrophe will only end when the walls come down, when the army of Border Patrol agents disappears, and when the paramilitary approach to border control is abandoned.”