Charges Against Border Humanitarians Reversed

By Maryada Vallet 09-13-2010

In southern Arizona, a glimmer of hope for immigration activists is like a drop of water on a hot summer day -- you are quenched for a brief moment, but the moment is gone once you realize how thirsty you really are, and God knows we are thirsty. Last Thursday, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the littering charges of No More Deaths volunteer, Dan Millis, who was convicted after placing life-saving water jugs on migrant trails in a national wildlife refuge. It is indeed a small victory for life in a deadly desert, especially after another summer of record deaths and huge efforts to mitigate implementation of the infamous SB 1070.

The two-to-one decision ruled that these water bottles do not constitute garbage as defined by the law and, therefore, cannot be litter. If the U.S. government declines to appeal further, this ruling will provide a legal precedent that could, for a moment, end the two years of littering negotiations and prosecutions of humanitarians (15 total, with Walt Staton still on federal probation awaiting dismissal of his appeal).

The caveat to this mirage in the summer sun is that border humanitarians could now be ticketed for abandonment of property or for acting without a permit on federal land, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have ended negotiations for said permits without allowing simple, life-saving jugs of water to be part of the plan. In this context, Millis is not quick to celebrate. He told the Los Angeles Times, "The day we change our federal border policies to show respect for human life is the day I'll feel vindicated." No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups have asserted all along that the humanitarian crisis on the border is the real criminal offense.

A taste of justice will not come from courtroom deliberations of technicality. We are not declaring a final win, and the humanitarian work remains strong, but the ability to freely provide aid is not the solution. As a faith-based community, we recognize that victory for our borderlands will probably not come with a judge's ruling. In fact, every day hundreds of judges around the country are giving harsh sentences and deportation orders to our immigrant neighbors and friends, with no hope of appeals or media attention. There is no vindication for the thousands of lives ended in the harsh desert or the families torn apart. Our hope for a glimpse of fairness and dignity is from our own duty to live out actions that defend human rights as part of a larger community. The world needs more models of that kind of justice; it is like sustenance on a hot summer day -- even in Arizona.

Maryada Vallet works with No More Deaths, a humanitarian initiative on the U.S.-Mexico border, which promotes faith-based principles for immigration reform.

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