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Robin Hoover: Government should not hinder aid work

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Migrants are dying in record numbers on public lands in the west desert of Arizona. Smugglers are making rational choices to guide their human cargoes through the area in response to Border Patrol enforcement strategies. Their efforts are both successful and deadly.

The mission of the Border Patrol is to interdict and remove them. The mission of west desert land managers is to protect natural resources. The mission of humanitarian aid groups is to reduce the numbers of deaths of migrants. Bottom line: They can work together or go to court.

Both courts and national policies actually favor humanitarian groups. Efforts to reduce the numbers of deaths in the desert should be applauded, not thwarted. As reported Tuesday in the Star, aid workers leaving water for border crossers are being banned from the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

Humane Borders, The Samaritans, and No More Deaths have significant public support. They now need statewide, tribal and federal support.

In March of 2001, I signed a Humane Borders application for permission to install water stations in the Cabeza Prieta refuge. The next month, the refuge denied permission, saying that water stations were incompatible. In May, 14 migrants died for lack of water. They walked right by a proposed water station site. The next day, the regional Fish and Wildlife manager stammered and sputtered and agreed to reopen the application. I set up seven water stations that September.

A $43 million wrongful-death lawsuit was eventually brought by the families of the deceased. The feds agreed they could not invoke sovereign immunity from prosecution. The case ended up in federal district court in Tucson where the late Judge John Roll wrongfully ruled that the refuge had acted correctly in denying the permit.

Roll’s decision was wrong because it was based on a lie. The lie was that water stations were “incompatible” with the refuge’s mission and that the land manager had exercised appropriate administrative discretion in denying the permit. The fact is, a compatibility study was never conducted. Technically, his decision could still be appealed.

Years later, No More Deaths was fighting the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge over basically the same thing. A senior official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service met me in Washington, D.C. That’s the same agency that operates the Cabeza Refuge. He asked for my help. I said, “It’s simple, do it my way.” They hurriedly conducted a study and concluded that water barrels on stands with flags was the way to go. This was consistent with a letter written by the secretary of the interior.

Both The Samaritans and No More Deaths place water in remote areas of the desert to reduce migrant deaths. Their efforts work. Both groups were based, in part, upon being mobile versions of Humane Borders, which operates fixed locations water stations. Their efforts are particularly vital now as migrant routes shift away from locations that can be served by Humane Borders water trucks.

The west desert is where the drama is being played out. The largest land managers are the Goldwater Air Force Range, the Cabeza Prieta refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Tohono O’Odham Nation. Well over half of all migrant deaths occur on these lands, which are all public lands of one sort of another.

The Border Patrol needs to stick to its mission and do a far better job of fulfilling its charge to reduce deaths with more Borstar agents, rescue beacons and other efforts. The land managers need to be accountable for what is happening on their lands and work to reduce migrant deaths. The humanitarian groups need to press hard on the managers of public and private lands to do the right thing.

Consent of the governed is a big deal. Banishment and threats of lawsuits and fines do not sit well with faith-based groups, humanitarians, nor human-rights groups. I was once threatened with banishment from the Tohono O’Odham Nation lands for advocating humanitarian assistance.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the Colibri Human Rights Center work with anthropologists, consular officials, and the Border Patrol to identify bodies of deceased migrants.

Their work is highly successful. Those migrants have families. They could retain attorneys again. The question is whether the governed or the courts will decide the issues.

The Rev. Robin Hoover is the president of Migrant Status Inc. and the founder/president emeritus of Humane Borders.

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