Border Patrol Destroys Humanitarian Aid in the Arizona Desert

A new report documents the Border Patrol's interference with humanitarian work.


Border Patrol sign at U.S.-Mexico border
Larry Gevert/

Border Patrol agents routinely sabotage the efforts of groups providing humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a new report from the group No More Deaths. The paper documents in detail the destruction of food, water, and other supplies the group's members have left for people attempting border crossings in the remote and hazardous Arizona desert.

"Our analysis leads us to believe that Border Patrol agents engage in regular and widespread destruction of water supplies with little or no apparent consequence," reads the report. The paper argues that this vandalism is part of a wider, decades-long ramp-up of immigration enforcement that had led to more hazardous border crossings, and consequently to an explosion in migrant deaths.

No More Deaths—covered in a recent Reason feature on the immigration crackdown—operates over an 2,500-square-mile section of the Arivaca area of Arizona. The all-volunteer group maintains over a hundred water-drops (supply caches stocked with water, food, and blankets) and a medical relief station in the remote and inhospitable region.

The new report looks at three years of logs kept by No More Deaths volunteers covering their efforts to resupply these water-drops, finding between 2013 and 2015 some 415 separate incidents where their food and/or water had been vandalized or destroyed.

Of 31,558 gallons of water it left in the desert by No More Deaths, over 10 percent, or some 3,586 gallons, were destroyed by human hands. Hunters, hikers, and occasional anti-immigrant activists might be responsible for some of this vandalism. But "the scope of destruction is over a pretty wide area," says Jeff Reinhardt, a member of No More Death's desert aid working group. "It's an area that generally Border Patrol is the only actor consistently present and consistently has access to that land."

No More Death found that their water-drops had been vandalized at an even rate both throughout the year and across the area that they service, save for a minor uptick in vandalism during hunting season. Yet the Arivaca area is under the jurisdiction of a hodgepodge of state, federal, and tribal agencies, along with a small number of private property owners. The area also lacks the road infrastructure that would make it accessible to most vehicles.

No More Deaths has also caught Border Patrol agents on video four separate times destroying water jugs by stomping on them, cutting them open, or pouring them out on the ground. The group's members have also found water jugs dyed to look like antifreeze with Spanish language messages scrawled on the bottles, warning people not to drink them.

In addition to the destruction of humanitarian supplies, immigration officials also raided No More Death's main medical aid station in the Arivaca in June 2017, and agents have reportedly harassed, detained, and surveilled the group's volunteers.

Steven Passement, acting special operations supervisor for the Tuscon Sector of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), says that while individual agents have destroyed supplies, doing so is in contradiction to agency policy.

"We don't condone or encourage the destruction or tampering with any of the water or local food caches," Passement tells Reason, adding that "if someone has information regarding an agent, one of our employees, doing something like that, doing any damage, we definitely want to know about this to hold this individual accountable."

Passement says that far from being opposed to the mission of No More Deaths and similar groups operating along the border, CBP is working toward the same aims.

"Nobody here in the Border Patrol wants to see anybody die out there or suffer in the desert. We have that goal of also saving lives," he says, adding that CBP has installed 34 rescue beacons in the same area No More Deaths operates, allowing lost or distressed migrants to call for help.

In 2016, these beacons were activated 232 times, leading to some 364 people being picked up by Border Patrol agents. Those who use these beacons to call for help are subject to detention and possible deportation.

The No More Deaths report argues that mixing medical assistance with immigration enforcement is contradictory: Any offer of aid that comes with the threat of deportation creates a huge incentive for undocumented migrants not to seek help at all. The group also calls it "a band-aid solution to a crisis of [the Border Patrol's] own making." The very fact that people are crossing in the deeply inhospitable Arivaca area is the result, the group says, of an explicit policy of "prevention through deterrence."

Conceived in 1994, the prevention through deterrence strategy called for a big increase in the number of Border Patrol agents and border fencing to close down the traditional (and safer) migration corridors into the United States.

"The prediction," reads the strategy document outlining this policy, "is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement."

Since then, the number of agents patrolling the southwestern border has ballooned from 3,747 in 1994 to 16,605 in 2017. This was matched by an explosion in the amount of fencing on the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border, growing from a mere 60 miles in 2000 to over 700 miles by 2017.

The government's prediction came half-true. Illegal immigration was not deterred, with the number of border apprehensions staying roughly consistent until the Great Recession. But more people were indeed forced into more hostile terrain, leading to rapid increase in the numbers of migrants dying in their efforts to enter the United States.

In 1998, 263 migrants died while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Tucson Sector—where No More Deaths' activity is primarily located—saw a mere 11 deaths that year. By 2005, that number had jumped to 492 deaths along the entire border, 219 of them in the Tucson sector.

The increase was so rapid that the Pima County Medical Examiner's office, which covers a swath of southern Arizona, started to keep detailed records on the deaths of undocumented immigrants in 2000.

Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess tells Reason that in the 1990s, the county received the remains of around 12 undocumented immigrants a year. From 2002 to 2016, the annual number spiked to about 170.

Pima Country recovered the remains of 2,615 undocumented migrants from 2001 to 2016. Due to the advanced decomposition of most of the bodies, the number one cause of death is undetermined, followed closely by "exposure."

Hess and his staff have been able to identify 1,676 of these people, returning the remains to their families. The 35 percent of undocumented migrant remains discovered in Pima County that go unidentified are interred at the county cemetery.

That was the backdrop when No More Deaths was founded in 2002. Since then the group has grown from a small clutch of activists and churchgoers to a multigenerational organization working with medical professionals, EMTs, and wilderness first responders.

Thanks in part to their efforts, overall deaths on the southwestern border are mercifully down from their 2005 peak of 492 to 294 deaths in 2017. But Reinhardt says the situation will stay dire as long as the immigration system continues to exclude the vast majority of people who want to move here. "We want to see that system dismantled, piece by piece, to allow for a more reasonable way for people to come to this country," he says. "The Border Patrol stands in the way of that happening."