For 15 years, desert aid workers and the U.S. Border Patrol have co-existed in a tenuous peace. Groups like No More Deaths set up aid camps to help migrants.
The Border Patrol allowed them to operate. On Thursday, activists say that all changed.
According to a federal warrant reviewed by the Fronteras Desk, a Border Patrol sensor was triggered at 4:25 p.m. on Tuesday by four people. The agency later said these four wore camouflage clothing and were tracked entering the No More Deaths camp near Arivaca, Arizona. The agency declined to specify the type of sensor that was triggered or where it was monitoring but said it was on the border.
The agency and No More Deaths volunteers said agents spoke with them Tuesday by phone.
No More Deaths spokeswoman Paige Corich-Kleim said she was at the camp Tuesday and warned the agents their presence could be staving off other migrants in need of help.
On Wednesday, agents went to No More Deaths lawyers. No More Deaths tweeted that evening about the Border Patrol's presence.
URGENT: Border Patrol agents have surrounded and are actively surveilling the No More Deaths humanitarian aid camp. Stay tuned for updates pic.twitter.com/1wLlADZHU7— No More Deaths (@NoMoreDeaths) June 15, 2017
On Thursday, the Border Patrol agents entered the private property with a search warrant, moving in with helicopters, quad runners and on foot to arrest the four people. They took them to a hospital, then kept them in custody on immigration violations.
At 6:45 p.m. Thursday, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector tweeted an update about the arrest of four migrants:
“This does raise concerns about the possibility of volunteers getting criminal charges. Volunteers have faced that in the past as well,” said Corich-Kleim. “There’s been littering charges as well as there once a charge where volunteers were charged with transporting…. But those charges were eventually thrown out and none of the littering charges have ever stood up in court.”
Charges involving aid workers on the border have come from several federal agencies over the years.
In 2005, Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were working at a No More Deaths camp and drove three undocumented immigrants to Tucson for medical help. Border Patrol agents arrested them on charges of transporting migrants and conspiring to do so, both felonies. Ultimately, the case garnered national attention and U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins in Tucson dismissed all charges a year later.
In 2008, a Bureau of Land Management officer cited Tucson Samaritans activist Kathryn Ferguson on charges of creating a nuisance, then handcuffed her. Those charges were also dropped
In 2008, Daniel Millis, a Sierra Club activist, was charged with littering by U.S. Fish and Wildllife Service after leaving bottles of water for undocumented immigrants in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Those charges were dropped in 2010.
Corich-Kleim has accused the agency of monitoring people coming into the camp. The Border Patrol said it does not monitor the aid camps.
Border Patrol spokesman Vicente Paco says the agency’s policy with aid workers has not changed.
“We have resources out there. We understand the humanitarians' missions, No More Deaths, Humane Borders, and all of those organizations. We have dialogue with some of the organization leadership," he said. "We understand their concerns, yet at the same time, we have a job to do in the Border Patrol."
He said that last month, agents followed eight migrants into the same camp. Two had prior criminal records in the U.S. and two needed medical care.
Activists say the Border Patrol agreed as recently as last April not to target aid workers. The Border Patrol says its policy is not to watch the camps but if agents believe someone in the camp broke a law, they will enter to enforce it.
There is no clear written policy as to what federal agents will make an arrest for and when humanitarian aid workers cross a line.
Corich-Kleim said the Border Patrol agreed in April to continue upholding a four-year-old “good faith agreement” drafted in accordance with the Red Cross’s code of conduct for disaster areas.
The unsigned document includes:
- All water, food, clothing, and medical supplies placed in the field by humanitarian aid organizations to prevent suffering and death should be protected from destruction, tampering, or removal by government agents.
- All humanitarian aid volunteers should be protected from threats of arrest, detention, or citation by government agents.
- Medical treatment provided by humanitarian aid agencies should be recognized and respected by government agents and should be protected from surveillance and interference.
- All Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector will be trained in the Red Cross Code of Conduct, the principles of our relationship, and respect for the independent mission of the humanitarian organizations.
Paco said the document is not a formal policy.
“The current guidance of the Tucson Sector is not to actively surveil the humanitarian camps. However, if agents while in the course of their duties have probable cause of suspected illegal activity, then our agents will enforce the law as it applies,” he wrote in an email.
Late Friday, the Border Patrol tweeted a video of an agent checking the heart rate of one of two men.
Paco said one of the four men tried to run away when agents arrived. He said Lucindo Diaz Hernandez is a convicted felon that had been previously prosecuted for possessing 600 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute. Diaz Hernandez had previously been deported and served five years in prison in Chihuahua, Mexico for drug trafficking, the Border Patrol reported in its latest press release.