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Water Drops for Migrants. Kindness, or Offense?

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  • Steven Robinson
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 26, 2010
      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
      are dying."

      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.
      Millis's conviction.

      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
      refuge lands."

      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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