Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Making a Case for Bottled Water…Maybe

US humanitarians criminalized for trying to keep illegal immigrants alive

The latest bit of meanness regarding unauthorized migrants in Arizona should come as no surprise. President Obama’s criticism of SB-1070 aside, federal and regional authorities don’t exactly have a stellar record of supporting human rights where unauthorized migration is concerned, especially when it comes to water. Many people crossing the border illegally have died, either through dehydration and exposure or through drowning while trying to ford a dangerous canal.

The situation at our southern border is very difficult and not easily resolved through regional decisions. As soon as fences are built or roads are closed, very determined people find or create new pathways into the country, often at the peril of the environment, wildlife and especially their own lives. US immigration policies directly and indirectly cause the destruction of ecosystems that will take years –in some cases hundreds of years – to repair. Having spent considerable time in the desert, this is distressing to think about. Unfortunately, these same policies increase the lethality associated with border crossings.

Anti-immigration policies in the 1990s were literally pushed through without regard to environmental concerns when the Secretary of Homeland Security waived all legal requirements for construction of border fencing in California (for a fascinating read on this check out this 2006 Report to Congress). Those wishing to enter the United States illegally through the US-Mexico border were forced to move east, making longer more treacherous journeys through fragile desert ecosystems.

The eastern movement by smugglers, illegal border crossers and the border patrol through the desert has wreaked havoc on vegetation, wildlife and infrastructure, including roads and water treatment facilities (most often damaged by illegal crossers seeking drinking water). The crossings often take days through sweltering heat and are made without enough water to survive the journey. Since the 1990s more than 5,000 people have died crossing the border into the Arizona desert; many of those deaths were caused by dehydration and exposure. People monitoring the situation report that Border Patrol policies and their increased presence has significantly increased the death toll in the last decade.

Numerous humanitarian aid groups have worked to supply water stations at established locations that are known to the immigrants, especially in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR). Volunteers with Arizona-based No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes (NMD) have been working to end death and suffering on the US-Mexico border through civil actions that address dangers people face when crossing the border through BANWR.

Numerous NMD volunteers have been arrested for leaving drinking water at known water stations throughout BANWR. The volunteers, among them priests, pediatricians and students, have received sentences of fines, community service and imprisonment for charges that amount to littering. Human rights organizations have been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to create an official determination on the establishment of drinking water stations “in a manner that causes the least impact to sensitive Refuge lands and resources.” The public comment period for the determination just closed and the initial determination by the FWS is that, as long as certain conditions are met, drinking water stations are compatible with Refuge operations. The drinking water stations will be evaluated for effectiveness and impact and will, hopefully, become a model for other federal lands through which illegal crossings are made.

Ironically, in California, the opposite problem exists. The All American Canal, the world’s largest irrigation canal, has been the scene of over 850 drowning deaths since a border fence was constructed to the west. The canal is the Imperial Valley’s only water source and is controlled by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID). An expert on water safety has called the canal the most dangerous body of water in the United States because of the lack of safety features and resultant drowning deaths. Yet the IID has been slow to the point of negligence in installing or even considering simple safety features that could prevent many deaths.

In an interview aired on the TV program 60 minutes, IID Director Stella Mendoza asked, “Is the IID supposed to save every individual that jumps into the canal? Is that my role?”

That’s a good question. Where do our responsibilities begin and end when human lives are at stake?

Because no actions happen in a vacuum and people and their environments are connected in ways that may not be apparent, solutions like those that being considered by the FWS and the IID are only stop-gap measures. We need more permanent solutions that come from serious re-evaluation of our immigration policies. The reform the President and members of Congress have promised to enact must take the whole picture into account, before more fences and walls are built and more ecosystems are permanently altered and degraded by people who hope to get to the promised land and those who hope to stop them.

This was up on another site (work) but they asked me to pull it because of the political nature of the article.

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