By Miriam Raftery
January 19, 2018 (San Diego’s East County) – A new report by humanitarian organizations reveals that Border Patrol agents have been systemically destroying water bottles left in desert areas for undocumented immigrants in the Arizona desert, condemning people to die of thirst. While its unknown if this is occurring in California, this article in Britain’s The Guardian hit home for me in a visceral way, reminding me of an experience that brought me to tears.
On the 4th of July In 2008, I rode alongwith Border Angels founder Enrique Morones. We discovered sabotage of water bottles his group had left in rugged locations--all slashed open, empty. My article, Dying to Come to America, was published in our very first edition of East County Magazine. Morones vividly described what it is like for people to die of dehydration – hallucinating, throwing off clothes and shoes. We saw the signs of this torment – a woman’s high-heeled shoe cast aside, a man’s crumpled shirt. The heat was triple digits.
I went along to learn about experiences faced by people so desperate to come to America that they rely on water left by benevolent strangers to survive. I learned that coyotes, or human traffickers, often lie to the migrants, telling them it's just a short walk to freedom; some women dressed up to meet their husbands are unaware of the dangers. I choked up, imagining their pain. My story included photos of those slashed water bottles and graves of people--some so very young--who died crossing East County's rugged border mountains in their failed quest to find freedom.
Border Angels actions were and remain controversial. Is it aiding people to break the law, or simply a humanitarian act of kindness to leave water out?
Morones took me to a graveyard, where hundreds of undocumented migrants who died after crossing the border locally are buried, some unidentified, their families never learning their fate. Others, named, were so very young. How many might have lived if precious water had been available?
Enrique brought flowers to lay at these otherwise forgotten graves marked only by bricks on parched earth. For the second time that day, my eyes welled up with tears. I could only imagine how much worse the pain must be for the families who lost loved ones, or who never learned the fate of missing sons, daughters, parents, husbands or wives.
The number of deaths of people crossing the border had risen dramatically back then, coinciding with the building of the border wall and fence through most of our region, leaving only gaps in the most seemingly impassible terrain in high desert portions of East County.
While clearly it is important for the U.S. to know who is crossing our borders and assure they are not terrorists or cartel members smuggling drugs, and perhaps to have reasonable immigrant limits, the vast majority of immigrants taking such routes are simply desperate to find work, reunite with family members here, or find a better life in America.
Crossing a border illegally is not supposed to be punishable by a death sentence.
Whether you are for or against stronger immigration laws or beefing up border security, it is simply inhumane to allow agents of the U.S. government to engage in actions that they know will kill people-- who have not engaged in any known violent action.
The people dying include children, mothers, and fathers. You can be a hardliner on immigration and still be a compassionate conservative when it comes to protecting human lives. Even former Congressman Duncan Hunter, Senior’s brother was known to leave water out near his ranch to aid migrants who might otherwise die of thirst.
Federal law provides for deportation as the penalty for people who are determined by immigration authorities to have entered the U.S. illegally. Government agents should not engage in rogue activities in defiance of the law and human decency.
Enrique Morones suspected at the time that the sabotage here in 2008 was the work of Minute Men vigilantes, who had held an event shortly before the slashed water bottles were discovered. But the report commissioned by two humanitarian groups, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos documents destruction of over 3,500 gallons of water and includes video of Border Patrol agents kicking and destroying water bottles. Could agents of the U.S. government have been responsible for those slashed water bottles that I saw – and many others damaged since then here?
Minute Men who have been proven to kill or harm immigrants have been sentenced for their crimes. Similarly, Border Patrol agents found to use excessive force against migrants have been convicted and served time.
Similarly, federal agents or anyone else engaged in willfully jeopardizing lives by destroying life-saving water at these stations should be held accountable in a court of law. The Border Patrol should also prohibit its agents from destroying water left for migrants. There are many better ways to address immigration concerns without condemning migrants to die.