No More Deaths
Next fall, Walt Staton will be starting divinity school to become a Unitarian Universalist minister—or in jail for littering.
On June 4, the 27-year-old UU was convicted by a federal court in Tucson of "knowingly littering" for leaving water jugs in the 118,000-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. Staton is part of a humanitarian aid group called No More Deaths, which supplies water, food, and first aid to migrants walking across the desert.
Founded in 2003, No More Deaths [NMD] is a ministry of the 300-member UU Church of Tucson. In addition to congregants, the organization also draws members from the community. NMD's mission is two-fold, including advocacy for migrant rights as well as the distribution of water and other supplies.
NMD operates from a base camp in the Sonoran Desert that was donated to the organization for its use. Desert conditions can be harsh, with daytime temperatures in the summer rising over 100 degrees and winter temperatures falling below freezing at night.
NMD volunteers stay at the camp and go out twice a day to distribute water and supplies. Each water bottle is dated and marked with its GPS coordinates. Volunteers note how many bottles have been used, where they've been found, and whether they see migrants on their rounds.
"A few years back, we would rarely come across migrants," Staton said. "They traveled mostly at night. But around a year and a half ago, the border patrol completed a new section of the wall. Literally, as soon as it was done, it funneled people into the area we actively patrol. We began seeing nearly a hundred people a week."
The group collects the empty bottles and then cleans and reuses them. Although the ministry began by supplying water during the summer months, it now has groups that go out weekly during the rest of the year.
At their camp, NMD offers basic first aid services, clean socks, food, water, and information. One of the things they warn people about is drinking contaminated water from water tanks in the desert. The group will also arrange medical evacuations, if necessary, and will call the border patrol if people decide they would rather be repatriated. "We once met a Mexican policeman who had gotten laid off," said Fran Brazzell, president of the church's board of trustees and an NMD volunteer. "He was walking across the desert in his boots, which were inadequate, and had gotten horrible blisters. He came into our camp for humanitarian aid—to have his blisters treated and get rehydrated. He asked to go back. He was very cheerful but emotional. It was a difficult decision."
"Many migrants don't realize how harsh conditions are in the desert," she continued. "Many of them live in a tropical climate with plenty of water and shade."
But hazards are not all environmental. Brazzell said that it was not uncommon to come across a tree in the desert with a bra hanging from it. "They're called trophy trees," she said. "Because a woman was raped by a guide there."
Many of the migrants making the crossing are hoping to be reunited with their families, Staton said. Immigration raids have resulted in the deportation of thousands of undocumented workers. "People who have lived their whole lives in the United States are just trying to get back to their families."
NMD also advocates for custody standards and treatment of migrants. NMD members go to court in Tucson every Tuesday morning to observe "Operation Streamline," which are mass deportation hearings. They also volunteer at repatriation centers along the border.
"We've had a lot of people come up to us and ask, 'Are you the people who put the water jugs out?'" Staton said. "And then they say, 'I thought I was going to die and I found your water. We really feel lucky we found your water.'"
Dan Millis, another NMD volunteer, was convicted of littering in September 2008. His case is currently under appeal at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Staton will be sentenced August 4. The maximum punishment is a fine of $10,000 and up to one year in jail. Staton is planning to appeal.
NMD plans to continue its work, despite Staton's conviction. "We don't believe that we're doing anything illegal [by] providing humanitarian support for people who are dying," Brazzell said. "We don't see how that can be illegal."
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