Humanitarian Aid: A Crime With "No Punishment"

For decades, illegal immigrants have traversed the passage of the infernal Sonoran Desert as an act of desperation and for a chance to seek opportunities away from extreme poverty in southern Mexico. And every year, this inhospitable desert, also known to many as, "The Devil's Highway," claims the lives of hundreds of economic refugees who encounter its harshness for the first time.

For many, the only salvation from the merciless desert comes from volunteers like Daniel Millis and the organization, "No More Deaths," a humanitarian organization whose mission is to end refugee deaths and suffering by providing water, food, and medical assistance to migrants walking through the Arizona dessert. In fact, Millis' unique story resonates with human rights activists after he was ticketed for his humanitarian work.

In February of 2008, on one of his routine humanitarian aid runs, Millis found the body of Josseline, a fourteen-year old girl from El Salvador in the Southern Arizona Desert who, "became sick after probably drinking some dirty water, or perhaps just running out of water and becoming dehydrated," Millis said in an interview on "Democracy Now!" Two days later while on the same migrant trail, "feeling motivated and determined that our life-saving work was necessary in that area," Millis left gallon-sized jugs of water for the immigrants and was then ticketed for littering by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Millis was then faced with a hefty $5,000 fine and a six months of jail time for his refusal to pay the ticket.

After fighting his sentence, US Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco suspended Millis's punishment so he no longer had to pay the $5,000 maximum fines, the original $175 ticket and serve the six-month jail period. However, the ruling declared Millis guilty of the Class B misdemeanor offense of littering on National Wildlife Refuge.

Making a public statement on his blog, "Border Stoked," Millis remarked, "Apparently, the US Government believes that humanitarian aid is a crime for which no punishment is warranted." Millis contrarily declares that, in reality, humanitarian aid is an "act of compassion and basic decency," declaring it a no-brainer move that should be valued and preached, not reprimanded. Although Millis's initial fines and jail time were suspended, he believes that the 'guilty' verdict has a conscience that does not levee a penalty.

"We feel this is a very passive-aggressive ruling, very absurd, much like the rest of the situation along the US-Mexico border," said Millis about the ruling. The whole ordeal casts a hypocritical and contradictory stance on immigration after the judge basically said that humanitarian aid is not really a crime, but in this case it is, which is ridiculous, so Millis should not be punished by law.

Refuting Millis' contentions, Sally Gall, assistant manager at the refuge, told the Arizona Daily Star, "I think the decision is the correct one...Whether there are immigrant problems or not we are not going to authorize littering." Wildlife refuge officials have reported enormous problems with trash caused by almost 2,000 illegal immigrants who travel through the desert daily, which is why it is imperative that littering laws are enforced. One of the biggest problems with trash is its impact on wildlife, which ends up choking and killing the animals. Yet, Millis pointed out the irony in this situation when he mentioned, "We [the "No More Deaths" group] had actually picked up more trash that day than water jugs we had left out." Adding to this frustration, the Fish and Wildlife officers confiscated the 22 gallons of water intended for the immigrants but not the trash the volunteers had collected that day, affirming that the problem here is not littering but apathy for human rights.

Willing to get tangled in the immigration debate to save lives, people like Dr. Samuel Klein told the Chicago Tribune, "These people are dying on US soil. This is a US issue. It's not a Mexico issue. If 100 people died anywhere in a single country from exposure, I think it would make national news." Klein, 46, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Arizona, proposed a controversial new initiative, which would predict, like a weather report, the likelihood of deaths among immigrants illegally crossing the border.

Ever since the federal program, "Operation Gatekeeper" went into effect 15 years ago to deter immigration, it has forced immigration to the hinterlands of Arizona, where temperatures sky rocket to 110 degrees in the summer. Certain that many immigrants would not dare take the passage through the hot zone, the majority of border officials have turned a blind eye to the death tolls at border crossings - The Department of Homeland Security reported 204 migrants deaths along the border in 2007.

This strategy of militarization has merely rerouted desperate human migration away from the popular suburban routes, like San Diego, and forced people into harsh and desolate areas, where people's hopeful journey usually ends earlier than expected.

"We're not trying to be confrontational [about the littering citation]," said Walt Staton, who also works with No More Deaths. "We're just seeing that the US has chosen a style of enforcement that has led to too many deaths and human rights violations. We want to see the end of militarization of the border."