Death on the Border: Who's the Criminal Here?

By Maryada Vallet 12-01-2009

As a community of faith and conscience in Southern Arizona, we have seen more than a decade of deadly border enforcement, free trade, and immigration policies destroying habitat and home for many. We have seen far too many tears on the dusty trails from families split apart, not to mention bodies left behind; yet these bigger issues are commonly dismissed from any high-level border debate.

The U.S. government continues to escalate the hyper-criminalization of both migrants and humanitarian workers on the U.S.-Mexico border. This is happening through the continued use of initiatives like Operation Streamline and the ticketing of humanitarian workers for putting out water on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR). Humanitarians are being prosecuted for "littering," a ridiculous charge to smokescreen the larger socio-political issues at hand.

The greater crisis is that thousands of migrants have died in the desert as a direct consequence of the deterrence-based U.S. border enforcement policy, and fragile desert ecosystems have been destroyed in the wake of more walls. The U.S. policy of militarization and deterrence is in violation of international human rights laws. Likewise, the daily mass-criminalization of shackled migrants in "Streamline" hearings along the border is a mockery of civil rights and an unseemly display of ritual humiliation of decent people.

This past summer, a humanitarian volunteer joined the masses of newly criminalized migrants in the courtroom, a reckless waste of federal resources, indeed. Walt E. Staton was found guilty of "knowingly littering" for putting out water on BANWR. He was sentenced to a year of probation and mandated to 300 hours of community service of picking up trash on public lands. Currently a student at the Claremont School of Theology, Staton is driven by civil initiative to uphold international human rights standards and will not be completing the service hours.

Staton will be re-sentenced in Tucson federal court this Friday, Dec. 4, at which time he faces up to one year in prison and heavy fines for this bold stance. From his letter to the federal magistrate:

I invite the court to re-consider its sentence in light of the undeniable humanitarian crisis unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border. My hope is to finish out my seminary education and become ordained as a minister to serve faith communities, which in my view is a life-long commitment to community service. I also hope to see the United States change its border enforcement policy to guarantee fundamental human rights. I will continue working with humanitarian organizations until that shift in policy occurs and the death and suffering ends.

In response to this trial, The New York Times also questions the deflected responsibility for this mess, which goes far beyond litter: "When the government cracks down on illegal crossings while refusing to establish a safe, sane alternative, funneling people into the remotest stretches of a burning desert, it shares responsibility for the awful results. One of those results is plastic bottles. Another is corpses." (Sunday Editorial, Aug. 16, 2009).

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

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