Thursday, June 4, 2009

No More Deaths Volunteer Convicted of Littering for Leaving Water in the Desert

The group No More Deaths has been working to save immigrants who are funneled into the Arizona desert by the border wall. In 2006, even before the Secure Fence Act led to the construction of hundreds of miles of Arizona border wall, the Government Accountability Office found that immigrant deaths had doubled as a result of the first walls built in California. A number of No More Deaths volunteers have been charged with littering for leaving water for border crossers. In the Arizona desert, where summer temperatures regularly top 110 degrees, it is virtually impossible to carry sufficient water. No More Deaths issued the following press release regarding the conviction of one of their members for leaving water in the desert for migrants:

Humanitarian Who Left "Life-Sustaining Water" for Migrants Convicted of “Littering”

Walt Staton, a volunteer with the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, was convicted today of "knowingly littering garbage or other debris" after he left clean drinking water for undocumented migrants crossing the desert on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

In response to this verdict, No More Deaths released the following statement:

“This is a sad day for human rights and for all of us in southern Arizona. By penalizing life-saving work, the United States is showing callous disregard for the lives of our neighbors to the south, whose only crime is to seek a better life. No More Deaths will continue to provide life-saving aid to those in need, and to do our part to clean up the desert. The era of border enforcement that uses death and human rights abuses as a deterrent must come to an end.”

After more than four hours of deliberation on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, the 12-member jury first stated to the court that they were not able to agree upon a verdict. Magistrate judge Jennifer Guerin then ordered the jury to go back and attempt again to reach a unanimous verdict. Staton's attorney, William Walker, objected to the order, stating that it was coercive to the jury. The jury reconvened and met for less than an hour before returning a guilty verdict.

On December 4, 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer James Casey cited Staton and three other humanitarians for littering after being contacted by Border Patrol agents who were following the volunteers. The US Attorney’s office later dropped the charges against the other three. Staton refused to accept guilt and pay the original $175 fine. He now faces the punishment of this criminal misdemeanor that could include up to one year of prison time and a large fine. Sentencing is set for August 11.

In Staton's court testimony, he said that he was compelled by his personal experiences of encountering severely dehydrated migrants in distress. He also explained how the organization uses a strategic system of maps and GPS equipment to place the water in strategic locations. "We try to be conscious as an organization to be the most effective in order to save lives," stated Staton during examination.

During closing arguments, defense lawyer Bill Walker held a full gallon jug of water in the air and declared: "When the government tells you this case isn't about water or this isn't about saving lives, they're wrong! This is valuable, life-sustaining water."

During jury selection nearly one third of the original 31 potential jurors were dismissed after stating they had strong emotions about providing humanitarian aid to migrants and would be unwilling to convict someone who was engaged in humanitarian aid. Public support was also evident during the two full days of the trial as the courtroom remained full with 40-50 humanitarian supporters from local groups such as The Samaritans, Humane Borders, American Friends Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, among others.

Dan Millis, a fellow No More Deaths volunteer, received a similar ticket in February, 2008, for leaving water jugs on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Millis was found guilty last September after a bench trial before magistrate judge Bernie Velasco in Tucson. Dan appealed the case to the US District Court, where the original ruling was upheld. It is currently under appeal at the 9th Circuit Court. Staton also plans to appeal his case to the 9th Circuit.

“The Buenos Aires leadership needs to realize that we’re on the same team here,” Millis said. Millis works full-time for the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Protection Campaign. “They need to issue more permits allowing humanitarian groups to provide water and pick up trash on the refuge,” he said.

Letters of support for Walt Staton, Dan Millis and No More Deaths can be sent to media@nomoredeaths. org; they will be posted on our web site.

* Background on No More Deaths:

According to Pima County medical examiner's data, approximately 20 bodies of deceased migrants have been recovered from Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge since 2002. Dehydration is a factor that leads to many of these deaths. More than 5,000 bodies have been recovered from the US/Mexico border as a result of the U.S. Border Patrol’s strategy of deterrence, beginning in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper.

Since 2004 No More Deaths has provided life-saving aid to migrants in distress along the Arizona/Mexico border. Thousands of volunteers have participated in these efforts, which include providing water, food and medical assistance. No More Deaths is a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson and seeks to work with other religious groups, government, community partners, and individuals willing to work toward an end to the humanitarian crisis occurring in the Arizona desert.

No More Deaths is currently gearing up for its sixth summer of humanitarian action during the hottest, deadliest months of the year. We are accepting volunteer applications for the summer, and welcome any and all donations to support our work!

For an updated list of migrant deaths in Arizona, visit DerechosHumanosAZ. net.

Please take a moment to sign the following e-letter to participate in an international campaign declaring that "Humanitarian Aid Is Never A Crime!” This letter speaks to a case in which the Italian government is prosecuting two Germans for "smuggling" after they rescued a sinking raft in the Mediterranean Sea with 37 African refugees on board. Such prosecutions resonate with the efforts by the United States government, described above, to criminalize life-saving humanitarian work.

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