Can a Human Being Be Illegal?
Hoping to curb desert deaths, a Tucson group offers water to illegal immigrants
If you cross a border, have you abandoned all your civil rights? Can an illegal immigrant be a human yet have no human rights?
Here are some excerpts from a recent news report that appeared in the Denver Post (Colorado, USA).
by Hart Van DenburgThe 300 gallons of water in the back of John Yoakum's truck make driving difficult, so he steers his rig carefully along a remote and rocky service road in this lonely preserve on the U.S.-Mexico border. Up ahead, through the searing heat and towering cactus, he sees a bright blue flag waving in the clear June sky. Below are a collection of turquoise plastic drums with big, reflective letters spelling out "AGUA."
Last year Yoakum and fellow members of a faith-based humanitarian aid organization called Humane Borders filled these emergency aid tanks with 5,000 gallons of water with the goal of keeping immigrants alive as they cross the border illegally and walk through the unforgiving Sonoran Desert in Arizona.
At least 93 immigrants in the Tucson area alone have died this year of heat and dehydration, or hypothermia in the winter, while trying to make the trek. The toll already surpasses last year's total of 76 for the area, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. The agency's records show that more than 1,000 have died on the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile-long southwest bordern with Mexico since 1998.
Yes, say members of Tucson-based Humane Borders, illegal immigrants have broken the law by entering the United States without proper documentation. But, no, human beings should not have to pay with their lives for making that decision.
This day Yoakum parks the truck and proceeds, with the help of two assistants, to unload and carry more than a dozen 5-gallon jugs of water across a quarter-mile of desert to replenish this station in the middle of nowhere.
"I don't want to do this. I don't think I should have to do this. I want to stop," Yoakum complains.
But he says he is compelled by religious faith to act because more and more illegal immigrants are dying in these Arizona borderlands.
This year's deaths already have surpassed last year's total of 78. By contrast, only about 10 died of similar causes along the entire Southwest border in 1993.
So Yoakum joined Humane Borders, created to curb the desert deaths and to encourage the Immigration and Naturalization Service to change its border strategy.
Beginning in early 2001, the group's members began to raise eyebrows, media attention and the ire of big-government groups by setting up emergency water stations along popular migrant trails running north from the border.
Yoakum, a member of Tucson's First Christian Church, says he's trying to save human lives because "Jesus said the least among us are at least as important as everyone else."
In recent years, and at a cost of almost $2.5 billion annually, the Border Patrol has visibly slowed urban illegal crossings - and pushed the migrant stream out into remote desert areas. As the flow has shifted, and as more migrants cross, the traffic, rescues and death toll in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector all have climbed steeply.
A recent Public Policy Institute of California report calls this development "predictable, but unintended." Rev. John Fife, pastor of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church and a founding member of Humane Borders, calls it sinful.
"The most desperate people are dying in our own backyards. Anyone who can stand by while that happens has no soul," he says.
True, nobody is forcing the migrants to make such perilous journeys, he says. But, he asks rhetorically, "Why do they cross? Do you take no action and watch your children die of starvation before they're 5 years old? You're willing to take that chance and cross. I know I'd take those odds."
This isn't Fife's first experience challenging U.S. immigration policy. He was a co-founder of the 1980s Sanctuary movement, which sheltered Central American refugees in U.S. houses of worship after they had fled civil wars in their own countries. The U.S. government called the Central Americans illegal immigrants, and prosecuted Fife and 10 others in 1987 for conspiring to shelter them. He and seven others were convicted and sentenced to probation. The other three were acquitted.
Fife explains in his adobe-walled church office that Humane Borders is not Sanctuary - all meetings and water service trips are open to all comers of good faith; there's no underground railroad, no harboring of illegal immigrants - and there's a heavy emphasis on not breaking the law.
With permission, even encouragement from landowners and government agencies, more than a dozen Humane Borders water stations now dot the Arizona landscape. Some are near border towns such as Nogales, Naco, Douglas and Sasabe; others are in preserves such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta and Buenos Aires national wildlife refuges.
The Rev. Robin Hoover of Tucson's First Christian Church says, "There are all kinds of prophetic traditions telling us to take care of the poor and marginalized," Hoover says, "and the Bible just drips with the language of economics and righteousness and right relationships."
Staking out tough positions can be difficult for some people unaccustomed to such acts, he adds later, "but the genius of what we do is that we've found the one thing an ordinary person can go and do. They can say, 'I tried to help the situation, I put water out there.' "
He rejects the idea that Humane Borders' water stations encourage illegal immigration. "Nobody crosses the desert on foot for a drink of hot water," he scoffs. Similarly, he doesn't think the water stations offer false hope. "Without us, there's no hope at all," he says.
Some have made threats to stop Humane Borders by force. In Cochise County, where some ranchers have been known to stop illegal immigrants at gunpoint before calling the Border Patrol to pick them up, Humane Borders water stations have been stolen and vandalized. Hoover has come to work in the morning to find the Humane Borders flag and water drum in front of his church toppled over.
Hoover and his volunteers don't shrink in the face of such controversy.
Rick Wilmsen, a Tucson taxi driver and Humane Borders volunteer, is given to quoting from a tiny dog-eared Bible he carries in the pocket of a faded work shirt. He says illegal immigrants make their dangerous journey across the desert because "their living conditions are intolerable." As a Christian, he says it's his duty to help them stay alive.
Monica Zavala of Tucson, another volunteer, agrees, "for me, morally and ethically, it's just the right thing to do, regardless of the political consequence."
Sister Elizabeth Ohmann, a Franciscan nun for 50 years and a co-founder of Humane Borders, is firm in her resolve. "If I'm driving through the desert and it's 107 degrees outside and I see someone in need, there's no way I can't stop. I'll give them water. I'll give them food if I have any food with me," she says.
She knows she risks arrest if she offers a ride, or shelter, to a person she thinks is an illegal immigrant. It rankles her. "I think, if Jesus were in this car and it was me sitting out there by the side of the road, would he drive away from me? I don't think so."
More about the deadly desert
The Sonoran desert is dry: Rainfall in the Arizona portion of the Sonoran ranges from 12 inches or less per year around Tucson, to 3 inches or less in Yuma. This spring the Tucson area experienced more than 60 consecutive days without rain. And it is hot: Stretches of 90-degree days or more where the daytime temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit are not unusual in Tucson.
As the INS has stepped up its border patrols in San Diego, the flow of immigrants has moved eastward. More illegal immigrants now cross the U.S. border in the Tucson sector than anywhere else in the Southwest.
The INS maintains its policy is working because the number of people it caught has dropped from 1.2 million in 1993 to a predicted 1 million this year. (Law enforcement agencies usually claim the opposite!)
The General Accounting Office disagrees, reporting that "the primary, discernable effect of the urban strategy appears to be a shifting of the illegal alien traffic. "Rather than being deterred from attempting illegal entry, many aliens have risked injury and death trying to cross mountains, deserts and rivers.'
A 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that during the 1990s, between 7 million and 9 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States. Meanwhile, "Another predictable, but unintended, consequence of the border strategy has been an increase in the number of deaths at the border.'
The Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston has tracked the border death phenomenon since 1985. In a 1998 report it found, "deaths from weather-related causes (hyperthermia and hypothermia) have risen dramatically since 1995. By 1998, deaths from these causes were nearly three times as common as they were when undocumented migration crested in the mid-1980s.'
Also see Fred Foldvary on Immigration
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