- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Activists say they are merely leaving drinking water as an act of mercy.

Illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border through the Arizona desert are dying, activists say, citing dozens of deaths since Oct. 1 in the four Arizona border counties.

Federal officials say the activists are littering the landscape of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 38 miles south of Tucson, Ariz., and issued at least 14 citations to the volunteers. The hearing is scheduled for April.

Last summer, 13 volunteers from three groups — No More Deaths, Tucson Samaritans and Humane Borders — decided to protest a prior littering citation by traveling to the refuge and leaving plastic water bottles for immigrants. Refuge officials ticketed the volunteers for littering.

“Those guys weren’t putting out water; they were protesting,” said refuge manager Michael Hawkes. “They didn’t get a permit, and what they did was illegal.”

Current refuge policy states that water jugs cannot be simply left in the refuge, because the act constitutes littering. But the Rev. Jerry Zawada, one of the 13 and a Franciscan, said volunteers also pick up trash as they leave the water jugs.

“We are careful of the environment, and we pick up debris, but when it comes to human survival, we consider that a priority,” he said. “There are some officials who show some compassion, but we do blame the policy, and there are more deaths now because of all the barriers, the cold and the harsh terrain.”

The volunteers will be tried April 6.

Mr. Zawada said they are declaring themselves “not guilty.”

“One of the things that’s affecting us and encouraging us is the increase of deaths that have been reported,” he said.

No More Deaths says there have been 61 deaths in the four-county area that includes the refuge since Oct. 1. They list 213 occurring from Oct. 13, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2009.

However, No More Deaths does not have statistics for just the refuge, and the refuge’s manager says only two deaths occurred within park boundaries in fiscal 2009, and that neither of them was caused by dehydration.

Mr. Hawkes also said refuge officials made several attempts to reach No More Deaths so the organization could can get a permit approved through a compatibility determination. That is a review process that will allow the group to legally leave water bottles in the wildlife area.

In order to get a permit, the organization must complete a special-use permit detailing quantity, exact locations and clean-up dates.

“It’s up to the U.S. attorney,” Mr. Hawkes said. “He’s waiting to see if they make a bona fide effort to get a permit. He might postpone it, or even dismiss [the case]. He wants to see if they are moving forward.”

He also said the refuge already contains water sites — three from the Humane Borders group and four that are rescue stations maintained by the border patrol.

“Humane Borders has a permit, and they maintain their sites,” Mr. Hawkes said. “We’re not against humanitarian efforts.”

Sarah Lanius, a spokeswoman for No More Deaths, wrote in an e-mail that the group is “currently participating in good faith in negotiations with the government, in order to resolve the issues related to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.”

Mr. Zawada said special-use permits are not easy to get approved, and the size of the water bottles is part of the problem. Refuge officials want five-gallon jugs because the one-gallon jugs create too much litter. But No More Deaths’ position is that bigger jugs are inefficient for border crossers as they want to carry water with them as they get deeper into the United States. He says this is impossible with the larger jugs.

Kathleen Walker, a partner with Brown McCarroll, a legal firm in El Paso, Texas, says the water issue may have to be resolved by Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar.

“Secretary Salazar needs to help out and communicate with Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Interior and see if we can’t get the parties together to make more stations, instead of the hard effort to haul plastic bottles,” she said. “Maybe these efforts can be raising money for funding.”

But Adrian Pantoja, associate professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., said the problem between the two groups is about “federal paralysis.”

“The moral of the story here is that, in the absence of federal action, the states are implementing their own laws and policies,” Mr. Pantoja said. “The battle is being played out at local level, even though it’s Congress’ responsibility.”

He would like to see federal law be more responsive to human rights.

“Those should work together. There shouldn’t be a conflict,” Mr. Pantoja said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. And when they are in conflict, human rights should always win. It’s a false dichotomy. Human rights and positive law shouldn’t be in conflict. They need to come together and come up with practical solutions so the environment is protected and human rights protected.”

Ms. Walker calls the citations a “knee-jerk reaction” in a polarized environment on immigration.

“I think this economy and the challenges of the economy have tainted any efforts on immigration, both legal and illegal,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of talk and no appreciable action. And it’s negative to our security and to our competitiveness.”

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