In somewhat of a concession to humanitarians leaving water out in the desert for thirsty migrants, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it will allow more water stations on the 118,000-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona.
Although Fish and Wildlife has permitted the group Humane Borders to operate three sites on BANWR with two 55-gallon drums of water each, activists have long argued that this not enough to meet the needs of migrants cutting through BANWR and that the water stations are not on the migrant trails themselves, which shift over time.
As I wrote about in my February cover story Blood's Thicker Than Water, activists with organizations such as No More Deaths have been ticketed and prosecuted for leaving one-gallon jugs of water on migrant trails in BANWR.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jose Viramontes told me that such one-gallon jugs will still not be allowed on the refuge due to concerns about the environmental impact. The refuge is the home to endangered species such as the masked bobwhite quail and the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl.
However, Viramontes said that Fish and Wildlife will allow more water stations such as those Humane Borders operates. The stations would have to be semi-permanent, immobile, and near existing roadways, not on the trails themselves, according to Viramontes.
Pastor Randy Mayer of the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita is a current board member with Humane Borders, and one of the group's co-founders. He reacted cautiously to the announcement from Fish and Wildlife.
"Is BANWR really going to let us put water where the migrants are?" he wondered. "Or is this some kind of publicity push? They're not going to say they're not going to let us do it where there are real active trails.
"We want active trails," he continued. "We want where the migrants are. It doesn't make any sense for us to do this if we're not putting them where the migrants are really in danger."
(I should note that Humane Borders operates more than 100 migrant water stations throughout the Arizona desert, not just the three on BANWR.)
Viramontes reports that there have been 26 known deaths on BANWR over the last eight years. This includes one death by dehydration this year.
Despite reports of fewer illegal immigrants crossing the southern border, the number of bodies recovered in the Arizona desert have been creeping up again. The human rights group Derechos Humanos' count for this fiscal year so far is 214 recovered remains, an increase over the numbers for fiscal years 2007-2008 and 2008-2009.
Pastor Mayer said migration through BANWR has slowed significantly, and that his group has been urging the Tohono O'odham nation to allow water stations on tribal lands, as many of the deaths occurring in the desert are happening there.
Regarding the water stations Humane Borders maintains on BANWR and elsewhere, Mayer explained that the big problem now is with vandalism of the water stations.
"People are routinely shooting, stabbing and destroying the water stations," he related. "It's literally taking a cup of water from a migrant and throwing it on the ground and saying, `Suffer and die.'"
Another issue of concern to the activists is the fact that U.S. Border Patrol often stakes out the water stations in order to apprehend migrants. A Q & A from Fish and Wildlife that accompanied its press release makes clear that Border Patrol agents will continue to have "complete access to refuge lands and patrol the borderlands 24 hours a day."
The Q & A also states that those leaving one-gallon water jugs on the refuge will be subject to citation and prosecution, as in the past.
Coincidentally, CNN recently covered the activities of No More Deaths, following members such as Phoenix's Chris Fleischman who hike migrant trails and leave water for those crossing. The segment, by ABC 15 reporter Rudabeh Shahbazi, is well worth checking out. Which is why I've posted it above.