US Border Patrol Agents Vs. Humanitarian Workers

Last week, eight volunteers of the Tuscon-based humanitarian group No More Deaths, an organisation working to protect the lives of migrants crossing the Arizona desert into the US, were charged with federal crimes. Their offences included entering the Cabeza Prieta national wildlife refuge without a permit, driving in the area, and ‘abandoning property,’ namely placing water, food and blankets along migrant trails in the desert. Cabeza Prieta is one of the deadliest crossing routes for illegal migrants, and since last July, humanitarian workers have been banned from leaving supplies in this area. The charges are viewed by many supporters of the group as retaliation against a report published by No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos (The Coalition of Human Rights), in which it was revealed that US border patrol agents routinely and systematically destroyed water and other supplies left by volunteers for migrants crossing the Arizona desert into the US. The report claims that such tactics condemn many who cross illegally from Mexico to die of thirst, as, in the four year period that the report investigates, the remains of almost 600 migrants were found (although the number of people who died crossing the desert during this time is likely much higher). 

The organization claims that the charges against their volunteers fit a regular pattern of interference by US Border Patrol and Homeland Security to sabotage volunteer’s attempts at protecting the lives of migrants in the US-Mexico border zone. Steve Passament, a spokesman for border patrol in the Tuscan sector, stated that “[w]e have to do our enforcement job and we do it as humanely as possible. We want to save lives.” No More Deaths has declared this as ‘absurd’ as patrol agents “are creating this crisis in the first place” through their strategies of deterrence against migrants.

The growing militarization of the US-Mexico border began with the 1994 strategy ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ that was established by President Bill Clinton, which reinforced urban entry points in a deliberate attempt to funnel people into more challenging, desolate terrain. This strategy has, in general, led to fewer people crossing illegally, however causing an almost immediate spike in migrant deaths. In Arizona, prior to 2001, less than five dead migrants were found each year. In 2001 alone, 79 bodies were found. Subsequent US administrations have all continued to support this strategy of deterrence. Today, it is feared among activists that the Trump administration’s extreme stance on migrants will force even more people to risk the dangerous desert crossing, resulting in additional unnecessary deaths.

The entrenched state-sanctioned policy of deterrence against illegal migrants crossing the US-Mexico border has created an environment in which border patrol agents feel that they can, and should resort to extreme measures so as to obstruct those crossing. By purposefully and regularly destroying supplies of food and water in the Arizona desert – which the report estimated occurred on average twice a week – these agents are enacting a form of violence against migrants whose access to such supplies could be the difference between life and death. Such an act also reveals a mindset amongst border patrol agents (and indeed some of the US population) that Mexican ‘illegals’ crossing the border should not be entitled to a basic level of human rights.

Ruby Leonard