e-mail us

Death in the Desert

Prohibiting water stations contributed to migrant deaths, lawsuit charges


A $41 million claim against two federal agencies charges that the lives of at least 11 border crossers could have been saved last year had a faith-based organization been allowed to establish water stations in a wildlife preserve.

Humane Borders, which advocates changes in U.S. policies affecting workers migrating illegally from Mexico, maintains more than 20 well-marked water tanks near migrant trails in the remote desert borderlands of Arizona and California (NCR, April 5). During last fiscal year, 291 people have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico frontier.

Early in 2001, Humane Borders was denied access to Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a rugged, saguaro-studded haven for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, stretching 56 miles along the Arizona-Mexico border. Within weeks, 14 Mexicans had died along the refuge’s “Devil’s Path,” a dry, nearly shadeless area where daytime temperatures rise well above 100 degrees.

In May, two Yuma, Ariz., attorneys filed a $41 million claim against the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. Charging that the government’s refusal to put water in the desert contributed to the migrants’ deaths, the claim demands $3.75 million for 11 of the families of the deceased.

“The government has to take on the responsibility of doing something to safeguard folks who are crossing in these areas that are known to be dangerous,” said James Metcalf, one of the lawyers filing the claim. “The legal status of the individuals doesn’t mean the landowner can wave off all responsibility. And then there’s the fact that you had an organization trying to come into a specific area and volunteer -- at no expense to taxpayers -- to place water stations that would have saved these lives.”

The government, protecting the area’s wilderness status, restricts vehicles to a single dirt road through the refuge. Remote tanks would have to be replenished by volunteers carrying heavy water bottles on foot, an excessively “treacherous” situation, according to a spokesman.

Although Tom Bauer, the spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife regional office in Albuquerque, N.M., said he was appalled by the deaths, he disputed the idea that the proposed Humane Borders stations would have been relevant to this incident. “The area that the migrants perished in was at least 12 miles and two mountain ranges away from the nearest proposed Humane Borders water site,” he said. “I do not believe under any circumstances it would have assisted those poor people.”

“That does not seem correct at all,” countered Metcalf. “We have reviewed maps of where the sites would have been and where the individuals who died were found, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The other thing you have to remember is these folks wandered around in a circular pattern to some degree, so it’s a little disingenuous from the agency’s standpoint to say something like that.”

Following the deaths, Fish and Wildlife did allow 30-foot, blue-flagged poles to be erected at about 10 existing stock tanks on the refuge. The flags call attention to the open, 10,000-gallon tanks, which are maintained to benefit the antelope.

“It is certainly to their credit that [the Fish and Wildlife officials] have taken that action,” said attorney Metcalf. “That probably will not factor into the case, because you are not allowed to bring up subsequent remedial measures in court. But it shows they know that’s the right thing to do, and it’s what they should be doing to discharge their mandated duty to protect human lives on the property they manage.”

Meanwhile, the federal agencies have another four months to respond to the $41 million claim, and possibly negotiate a settlement. If that fails, the attorneys will file a civil suit in district court.

Metcalf has also initiated a civil case against farm labor contractor Francisco Vazquez-Torres, owner of Vazquez Harvesting in Lake Placid, Fla. On July 3 a federal jury in Phoenix convicted Vazquez-Torres for his role in the immigrant-smuggling ring that organized the ill-fated crossing. “He contributed to their loss of life and injuries to the survivors by placing them in this dangerous situation,” Metcalf said. “Now that there’s a criminal conviction related to that, we think that greatly enhances our chance of success in the civil suit.”

When sentenced Sept. 23, Vazquez-Torres faces up to life in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. The group’s guide, Jesus Lopez-Ramos, has already been convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Vazquez Harvesting foreman Joel Viveros-Flores, also indicted in the case, still awaits trial.

Also at the beginning of July, members of nine religious groups initiated Samaritan Patrol, which organizes volunteers to patrol in areas west of Tuscon where Humane Borders has not been allowed to place water stations and at least 33 border crossers have died since June. According to the Arizona Daily Star, volunteers are searching for illegal border crossers who are in distress and offer food, water and medical assistance.

“From the perspective of faith communities, it is essential that we do this,” said the Rev. John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church. “We have to cry out for an end to the policies that have led to record-setting migrant deaths. It is a sin.”

James Reel is a freelance writer living in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002