Dan Millis is a volunteer with the border humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, which regularly leaves water and sets up aid camps in the Arizona desert for immigrants. Last February, Millis was issued a $175 ticket for littering in a section of the Arizona/Mexico border that's also a national wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers issued the ticket after Millis put several canisters of water along oft-traveled trails. The humanitarian worker faced a $5,000 fine and six months of jail time for his refusal to pay the ticket.
A federal judge found Millis guilty of littering, but didn't issue a punishment, which Millis found strange but telling. "The ruling was an admission of the contradictory, hypocritical stance on immigration issues in this country," Millis said. "The judge basically said, 'Humanitarian aid is a crime, but the fact that it is a crime is ridiculous, so I'm not going to punish you.'"
Millis noted that the group's relationship with law enforcement is usually cordial. "Border Patrol knows about us," he said. "A lot of them have respect for our work because they find dead bodies, too, and no one likes that."
Walt Staton, who also works with No More Deaths, pointed out that the problem wasn't littering. When Fish and Wildlife officers cited Millis, they confiscated the 22 gallons of water he intended to leave for immigrants but didn't take the trash that he had also collected that day.
No More Deaths began in 2004 as a response to the spike in immigrant deaths in the desert. "The only safe way for migrants to cross through these militarized zones is on foot," Millis said. "They're taking superhuman, 100-mile hikes."
Just two days prior to Millis's run-in with the Fish and Wildlife officers, he was on a similar water drop when he found the body of Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros, a 14-year-old Salvadoran migrant. "Had we found her sooner, or had she found our water, she would have been celebrating her quinceñera [now]," Millis said.
According to Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 117 migrants died in the first half of 2008 trying to cross the border. The Department of Homeland Security reported 204 migrant deaths along the border in 2007.
The federal program Operation Gatekeeper that went into effect 15 years ago to deter immigration by ramping up enforcement has instead forced immigration to the mountainous hinterlands of Arizona and Texas, where temperatures hover around 110 degrees in the summer, and flash floods and lightning storms are a constant threat. Immigration officials, who were once certain migrants would not dare cross in these areas, have largely turned a blind eye to the yearly death counts at border crossings, according to immigration activists. Construction of the border wall has been very fast, as well, which has funneled migrants to the harshest parts of the border.
Last summer, the group's volunteers had face-to-face contact with 580 migrants, giving them food, water or medical attention. It's a statistic, Staton added, that does not count the untold numbers who empty the canisters of water and supplies left along the trail by humanitarian aid groups every night.
"We're not trying to be confrontational [about the littering citation]," said Staton, adding, "We're just seeing that the U.S. has chosen a style of enforcement that has led to too many deaths and human rights violations. We want to see the end of the militarization of the border."