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Border Patrol’s Destruction of Humanitarian Aid Is Killing Migrants (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

The U.S. Border Patrol "must hate us. It’s their work to capture us, but we are humans. And they don’t treat us like humans. It’s hate is what it is. They break the bottles out of hate.”

UPDATE, January 22, 12:45 p.m.: Hours after the release of this report, Border Patrol arrested Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, near Ajo, Arizona, along with two individuals receiving aid. According to No More Deaths, U.S. immigration officers preliminarily charged Warren “with a felony involving alien smuggling.” He appeared in court on January 18 and was released on his own recognizance. The two individuals who were receiving aid remain in custody. No More Deaths was unable to answer any questions about the case as it is an open legal case.

As dehydration and heat-related illness kill migrants traveling through the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, a new report reveals Border Patrol agents are destroying containers of water intended for border crossers.

Caitlin Deighan is a volunteer with No More Deaths and a co-author of Interference with Humanitarian Aid, a report created in partnership with Derechos Humanos. Interference with Humanitarian Aid is part two in a three-part series exploring the ways in which Border Patrol agents have harmed migrants attempting to enter the United States. Part one, Deadly Apprehension Methods, was published in December 2016 and shed light on Border Patrol’s conduct for agents in pursuit: practices that the report’s authors said “diminish and demean the value of human life.” Part three, expected later this year, will report on the governmental agencies not providing emergency search-and-rescue responses to migrants in distress.

Border Patrol’s 1994 strategy of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” the focus of part one in the series, described the immigration agency’s practice of pushing migrants into more dangerous and rugged areas of the borderlands, resulting in the death and disappearance of thousands. No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos say this strategy is still used today, but it now involves vandalizing the humanitarian aid that can be the difference between life and death.

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“Border Patrol agents stab, stomp, kick, drain, and confiscate the bottles of water that humanitarian-aid volunteers leave along known migrant routes in the Arizona desert,” according to Interference with Humanitarian Aid. “These actions condemn border crossers to suffering, death, and disappearance.” 

A lethal convergence is brewing under the Trump administration and it will affect some of the world’s most vulnerable people: economic migrants and asylum seekers appearing at the U.S.-Mexico border after having endured a dangerous—and sometimes deadly —journey.

As President Trump bulldozes his way into receiving funding for his much-discussed border wall, and as the administration moves to quickly hire thousands of Border Patrol agents while attempting to reduce hiring standards, conditions are expected to worsen for migrants in the borderlands. No More Deaths’ report sheds light on just how bad things are.

“Conditions are of course expected to worsen under Trump, but what is happening to migrants in the borderlands has been an ongoing problem for many years. One thing I really want to highlight is that more Border Patrol agents, more militarization, will only lead to more deaths. More people are dying regardless of how many are attempting to cross,” Deighan told Rewire.

Unauthorized Mexican migration into the United States has been at a historic low, but there are early indications of another “surge” of unaccompanied immigrant minors fleeing Central America. No matter who the population, the journey through the borderlands is a perilous one. In 2016, Border Patrol claimed more than 6,000 migrants had died crossing into the United States since the 1990s, but audits of its data suggested the figure is closer to 8,600 people. Because there is no consensus on how to count the total number of deaths, including whether disappearances are included, the full extent of the crisis remains murky. 

Miguel, a 37-year-old man from Sinaloa, a state on Mexico’s western coast, conducted an interview with the organizations and shared how he has witnessed Border Patrol destroying humanitarian aid. Medical professionals recommend that border crossers like Miguel drink between 1.3–3.1 gallons of water daily depending on conditions, but because water is scarce, migrants rely on water they can carry, which is usually no more than two gallons for the entirety of their journey, according to the report. The quickest a migrant could complete their journey in the 800-square-mile desert corridor near Arivaca, Arizona, is around four days, according to the report, though many migrants take much longer and volunteers with No More Deaths have encountered border crossers who have been in the desert nearly a month.

Miguel tried to cross the U.S.–Mexico border four times, each time walking between seven and eight days, according to the report. On each of his trips, he encountered food and water left out on trails. He also came across water jugs that had been vandalized. 

“Yes. I saw the water bottles stabbed. They break the bottles so you can’t even use them to fill up in the tanks. I needed water, some of the other people in the group needed water, but we found them destroyed. [I felt] helplessness, rage,” Miguel said. “[The U.S. Border Patrol] must hate us. It’s their work to capture us, but we are humans. And they don’t treat us like humans. It’s hate, is what it is. They break the bottles out of hate.”

Drawing on data collected by volunteers from 2012 to 2015, people working on Interference with Humanitarian Aid utilized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis to provide evidence that Border Patrol agents are the most likely actor responsible for the destruction of water provisions. The data revealed thousands of examples of vandalism of humanitarian aid, which they define as the destruction of food, blankets, and water gallons left behind for migrants by volunteers. Water gallons have been found slashed with knives, dumped out, stomped on, dyed, or otherwise tampered with. Some of this destruction by Border Patrol agents was even captured on video.

During the three-year span of its data collection, the organization estimates that at least 3,586 gallon jugs of water were destroyed in the 800-mile Arivaca corridor and perhaps most troubling, evidence suggests that water is vandalized in the areas where it is most needed.

Deighan said that the vandalization of humanitarian aid is “absolutely an extension” of Prevention Through Deterrence.

“Prevention Through Deterrence, whether that name is still used or not, is still standard operating procedure for Border Patrol,” Deighan said. “Border Patrol has updated its strategic plan to feature less harsh language, eliminating phrases like ‘mortal danger.’ But they’ve upheld their original strategynow saying it’s their goal to make it ‘more costly’ for people to cross. The influx of agents, technology, and walls into areas where it was once easier to cross funnels people into areas where it is most dangerous to cross. We see the slashing of water as a continuation of that logic. This isn’t an aberration; it’s Border Patrol’s policing doctrine and it attempt to maximize suffering and increase the risk of death to prevent crossing.”

As Rewire reported, the number of migrants coming to the United States increased rapidly in the mid-1990s after President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. As noted by the Global Justice Alliance, that trade deal “destroyed the Mexican farming sector,” devastated local economies on both sides of the border, and hit those in rural Mexico the hardest, forcing people to migrate in search of work.

During this time, under Prevention Through Deterrence, the United States militarized urban border areas in an effort to steer migrants away from ports of entry and into “geographically harsher,” as well as “more remote and hazardous” border regions, according to a August 2010 Congressional Research Service report shedding light on the decades-old program. This effort provided “Border Patrol agents with a tactical advantage over illegal border crossers and smugglers,” the report explained.

Border Patrol’s strategic plan for 1994 pointed out how the northern U.S. border’s “sub-zero” temperatures and the southern border’s “searing heat” can have an effect on “illegal entry traffic,” as well as how mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and valleys are “natural barriers to passage.”

“Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger,” the plan stated.

Border Patrol outlined “indicators of success,” which include fee increases by smugglers, more violence at attempted entries, and the potential for more protests against immigration policy, among others.

“If functioning as intended,” No More Deaths’ first report stated,“Prevention Through Deterrence would reshape migration to become more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught.”

The methods for pushing border crossers into harsher terrain have only become more sophisticated thanks to a dramatic increase in the militarization of the border wall under the Obama administration, including a large uptick in the number of Border Patrol agents, armored border cities with walls, cameras, drones, sensors, and military-style infrastructure from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas. If Trump succeeds at expanding the border wall and drastically increasing the number of agents in the borderlands, advocates expect to see a large increase in the number of migrants who die en route to the United States.

A Borer Patrol agent quoted in No More Deaths’ report said that water jugs were being vandalized to “expedite [immigrants’] apprehension.” Whether the federal immigration agency is dangerously obtuse or purposefully misleading is hard to ascertain.

Border Patrol has a long history of operating with impunity and engaging in human rights abuses. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have pushed to hold Border Patrol accountable “in the absence of any meaningful oversight,” and amid routine human rights violations that occur in the 100-mile border zone. This is a swath of land in which the Constitution doesn’t appear to matter and where Border Patrol agents “routinely ignore or misunderstand the limits of their legal authority,” the ACLU argues on its website. There appears to be an alarming shift in the type of surveillance Border Patrol engages in under the Trump administration, as evidenced by the military-style raid of a No More Deaths aid station.

Deighan said it’s hard to believe that Border Patrol agents don’t see the destruction of water as obviously “murderous.”

“I guess people can convince themselves of all kinds of twisted things, including Border Patrol’s logic that by destroying water and supplies, it would push migrants to seek help from them and turn themselves in,” Deighan said. “The reality is that people are being pushed into more rugged, remote, and desolate areas because of Border Patrol’s actions. It’s not more likely [migrants will] turn themselves in; it’s more likely that they will die. Border Patrol can’t say it’s responding to a crisis if it’s one they’ve created.”

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