Web-designer Walt Staton, 27, a volunteer with a Tucson AZ humanitarian aid group, routinely places sealed jugs of drinking water in the Arizona desert at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, in the paths undocumented migrants use as they to attempt to enter the US. For that, he was convicted this month of littering. This criminal misdemeanor carries a punishment of up to one year of in prison and a $10,000 fine, according to information provided by the group he assists called, appropriately enough: No More Deaths.
In the brutal Arizona desert south of Tucson, summer temperatures regularly top 110 degrees. Shade is scarce. Every year literally hundreds of undocumented migrants die trying to walk north from Mexico through this merciless environment. It is virtually impossible to carry sufficient water. No More Deaths' website reports 79 migrant deaths in the southern desert already this year, with 20 bodies of deceased migrants recovered from Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge alone since 2002. For the past five Staton has attempted to alleviate migrant misery by providing them with food, medical care, and--most importantly--emergency water.
"I was just trying to save lives," Staton stated. "I was trying to end the death and suffering in the desert. The best we can understand, the United States wants to enforce the border by making the desert itself a deterrent."
His defense lawyer Bill Walker held a full gallon jug of water high during closing arguments and declared: "When the government tells you this case isn't about water or this isn't about saving lives, they're wrong! This is valuable, life-sustaining water."
In December Fish and Wildlife Service officers cited Staton and three other volunteers, against whom charges were later dismissed, after Border Patrol officers tracked them in a helicopter. Officers confiscated eight jugs of water that they had positioned for migrants, and then seized an additional six gallons from the group's vehicle. The group of volunteers was carrying out empty water jugs and other trash at the time of the citation.
Staton's sentencing is set for August 11; he plans to appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit. Staton, unrepentant, says he will continue to leave out water for illegal immigrants walking through the desert, even if that means risking further citations. And No More Deaths has not given any indication that they'll change their motto:
"Humanitarian aid is never a crime."