Water Drops for Migrants. Kindness, or Offense?
By Marc Lacey
The New York Times
September 26, 2010
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Ariz. - In this remote, semidesert
landscape along the United States-Mexico border, water is a precious
commodity - and a contentious one, too.
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
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.
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.
The Border Patrol has installed rescue beacons in remote areas along the
border, including several in the Buenos Aires refuge, to allow immigrants in
distress to call for help. Those who are injured and have been left behind
by their guides are often so desperate they no longer fear deportation.
Still, the federal government has acknowledged that additional steps are
needed to keep deaths down on its land. In 2001, it gave another aid group,
Humane Borders, a permit to keep several large water drums on the refuge,
each of them marked by a blue flag and featuring a spigot to allow
immigrants to fill their water bottles for the long trek north.
Last year, the government considered but ultimately decided against allowing
No More Deaths to tether gallon jugs to trees to allow immigrants in more
remote areas to drink without taking the jugs on their way.
Right now, even after the court decision, there is what amounts to a
standoff. This month, the federal government said it was willing to allow
more 55-gallon drums on main pathways in the refuge. It said it would not
permit any gallon jugs.
But the water jugs continue to appear.
Last week, Gene Lefebvre, a retired minister who co-founded No More Deaths,
hiked along a path popular among immigrants until he reached a clearing
where volunteers for his organization had recently left some jugs.
Each bottle had markings on it noting the date it was left and the exact
location on the group's GPS mapping software. There were also signs of
encouragement for the immigrants: a heart and a cross on one bottle and the
words, "Good luck, friends," on another.
"We'd give water to anyone we found in the desert, even the Border Patrol,"
Mr. Lefebvre said.
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
The Buenos Aires refuge is among the most troubled of the 551 refuge areas
across the country, the federal government says. The reason is its location,
adjacent to the border.
"Since its establishment in 1985, refuge staff have worked diligently to
protect species such as the endangered masked bobwhite quail and pronghorn,
as well as offer meaningful visitor recreational opportunities," a recently
released government report on the water controversy said. "However, over the
past decade an increasing amount of refuge time and energy has been required
to address the growing issue of illegal traffic entering the U.S. across
In 2006 and 2007, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrants crossed
the refuge annually, along with Border Patrol agents pursing them, federal
officials say. "As a result, refuge lands have been marred by illegal trails
and roads, litter and degraded habitat," said a government report on the
The numbers have dropped in recent years, to 31,500 in 2008 and about 20,000
in 2009. "This still averages approximately 50 to 60 illegal immigrants
traveling through the refuge daily," the government report said.
Mr. Millis, a former high school Spanish teacher who now works for the
Sierra Club, disputes the notion that leaving out water jugs is luring more
immigrants. He said it was border enforcement efforts that had pushed those
seeking to cross into dangerous desert areas.
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.
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