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“Humanitarian Aid Is Not a Crime”–Activist Fights Littering Charge for Leaving Water Jugs in Desert along Arizona-Mexico Border

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The Sonora Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border is a deadly place. Over the past decade, nearly 2,000 men, women and children died while trying to cross the border into Arizona. Dan Millis is a volunteer with the humanitarian and advocacy organization No More Deaths. In February of 2008, he found the body of a fourteen-year-old girl from El Salvador in the southern Arizona desert. Two days later, as he was leaving gallon-sized sealed jugs of water along the same migrant trails, he was ticketed for littering by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He refused to pay the $175 fine and fought the littering ticket misdemeanor charge on the grounds that humanitarian aid is not a crime. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Sonora Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border is a deadly place. Over the past decade, over nearly 2,000 men, women and children died while trying to cross the border into Arizona. The Coalicion de Derechos Humanos keeps a record of the migrants who lose their lives during this journey. That’s Isabel Garcia’s group. Since last October, at least fifty bodies have been found.

No More Deaths is an organization, an humanitarian, advocacy group, that was founded in 2004 as a response to the growing number of deaths along the border. They operate along the Arizona-Mexico border here, providing water, food, and medical assistance to migrants walking through the desert.

We’re joined right now by Dan Millis. He’s a volunteer with No More Deaths. Last year, in February of 2008, he found the body of a fourteen-year-old girl from El Salvador in the southern Arizona desert. Two days later, as he was leaving gallon-sized sealed jugs of water along the same migrant trails, he was ticketed for littering by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He refused to pay the $175 fine and fought the littering ticket misdemeanor charge on the grounds that humanitarian aid is not a crime. Well, a district court has just denied his appeal last month, stating, quote, “the Court finds the water jugs, left in the refuge, constitute garbage.”

Dan Millis is joining us now, usually here in Tucson, but now in Washington, DC, for a meeting.

Welcome, Dan, to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Hi. It’s good to have you with us. Can you describe exactly what happened last February? How did you find the body of this dead teenager?

DAN MILLIS: Well, Amy, what happened was, we were actually walking along in the area of the migrant trails in order to leave out some water and some food and some medical supplies on the trails, like we normally do, and we just stumbled upon her, came around the corner, and there she was. And I can’t tell you what a horrible experience that is to see a little fourteen-year-old girl who died in the desert by herself.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what you did when you found her body.

DAN MILLIS: Well, we followed our No More Deaths protocol, which is to call the Pima County sheriff’s office and have them come to the location where we were and identify the body and take her to the medical examiner’s office. But it took them a long time to get out there. This is a very remote area.

And actually, through working with Isabel Garcia’s group, Derechos Humanos, we were able to locate — well, we were able to figure out who this girl was, because there was already a missing person’s report out for her. And they had been looking for her for about three weeks, is about how long she had been missing for when we found her.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain where she was from, why she was just over the border from Mexico in Arizona?

DAN MILLIS: Well, Josseline was from El Salvador. She was fourteen years old, and she was crossing the border with a group of migrants and with her ten-year-old little brother. And they were going to California to be reunited with their mother who lives there. She became sick, after probably drinking some dirty water or perhaps just running out of water and becoming dehydrated. This is a very rugged area. She was down in the bottom of a canyon and had probably already crossed a mountain range or two before getting to that point, about fifteen to twenty miles north of the Mexico-US line. So, when she became ill, she fell behind the group. I’m told that she encouraged her little brother to keep going, because he needed to make it to meet her — meet their parents. And her little brother did make it, as did the rest of the group, to our knowledge. But Josseline did not.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dan, can you explain what you then did two days later?

DAN MILLIS: Well, two days later, I was on another routine humanitarian aid run, obviously very motivated that day and very determined that our lifesaving work was very necessary in this area. And we were putting out water along migrant trails, so that people like Josseline, who are in dire straits, can find some clean, safe water to drink. And they’re just gallon water jugs. They’re sealed. It’s clean, pure drinking water. We leave it on the trails. And we pick up any trash that we find. That was the real ironic thing about this littering citation, as we had actually picked up more trash that day than water jugs that we had left out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have been charged with littering for those jugs.

DAN MILLIS: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And take it from there. What happened?

DAN MILLIS: Well, the officers gave us the — well, gave me the littering citation, which we fought, as you mentioned, in federal court. And upon losing the initial judgment, we appealed to the district court, and unfortunately, the conviction was upheld.

Now, the interesting thing about this conviction was that they gave me a guilty sentence but no punishment whatsoever. So I didn’t have to look at — I didn’t have to serve the six months’ jail time that I was looking at. I didn’t have to pay the $5,000 maximum fine. I didn’t even have to pay the $175 ticket. So we feel this is a very passive-aggressive ruling, very absurd, much like the rest of the situation along the US-Mexico border.

AMY GOODMAN: But now the littering fine has been upheld.

DAN MILLIS: No, only the conviction. The fine itself was suspended. It’s a suspended sentence. So, again, the government is saying humanitarian aid is a crime for which no punishment is warranted. And it’s very hard to navigate the waters of border policies like that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion, talking about the human impact of the border policies today. And then we’re going to also look at the environmental impact. Dan Millis is with us. He’s with No More Deaths. And Isabel Garcia is with us here in Tucson at PBS station KUAT. We’re on the road. Stay with us.



We’re joined by Isabel Garcia of Derechos Humanos, as well as Dan Millis, who is with No More Deaths. As Dan was telling us this story, Isabel, how did you find out who this fourteen-year-old girl was?


Well, since, unfortunately, the latter ’90s, our office has become a missing persons place, as well. People from Mexico, from El Salvador, from Guatemala, from Brazil will call our office hoping that we can assist them in finding their loved one, whether it was lost five years ago crossing this desert, last year or a few weeks.

Josseline had been reported to our office, as well. And, of course, we follow a protocol that we have in terms of trying to locate this individual. Obtaining as much information as possible, Kat, with our office, attempted to do this when, of course, then we heard the news that the No More Deaths people had found her body.

Unconscionable. I can’t believe that we live in a country that permits this kind of human tragedy. Over 5,000 people have died on the border, accepted as collateral damage for our political conditions that we have set on the border, limiting people not only in their right to migrate, to survive, to join their families, but also continuing to impact their right not to migrate, that we’ve created Mexico from an importer — exporter nation into an importer nation of their basic agricultural staples. We are hypocritical to say and denounce that people from Mexico should not be coming to our borders, when we, through our free trade agreements, have impacted their very livelihood.

So, people like Josseline are dying. Children are dying. Children have been run over by the Border Patrol. Children have died in the desert. Mothers have died holding, giving life to their child. When we were denouncing Elian’s parents in — father in Cuba, we had Elizama who was found, an eighteen-month-old, coddled by her mother who was dead holding her in her arms. Josseline is but another one of the casualties, and we continue to receive reports from everywhere, people that bring — send in photographs of tattoos or other identifying marks. It really is a travesty that we live here at this border.


President Obama is going to be giving a commencement address at Arizona State University. It’s been a big controversy over whether or not he would get an honorary degree, but he will be here. If you were able to meet with him — and have you ever talked to him? — what would you say would be a fair immigration policy, Isabel Garcia?


I think Obama administration is smart, competent and totally unaware of what’s going on along this border. His designation of Janet Napolitano, of course, was not a good move on our part, in that he would receive the same information about what’s going on at the border than the previous administration.

And if we could tell President Obama how to deal with this immigration, we would tell him, deal immediately with global security, economic security, sustainable economic development in Mexico, amending NAFTA like he had promised he would do; secondly, that he should push for real immigration reform — real, in other words, legalizing the 12 million people that have contributed so much to our country; and thirdly, to demilitarize this area, demilitarize our society, not to continue to permit the funneling of billions of dollars to prison industry, private companies, CCA, Wackenhut, Boeing, Northrop Grumman. All the military contractors should not be militarizing our border.

Our country needs real security, real security with jobs, healthcare, education. That is a real change that we need on the border and in immigration.


And your work continuing on the border, if you could describe it, what Derechos Humanos does now?


Derechos Humanos is trying to alert the nation of this situation. Very few people know what actually happens here, what national security measures really look like. It’s over 5,000 deaths. It’s the destruction of Cabeza Prieta, Organ Pipe National Monument, the San Pedro River Riparian Area. It is the impact of indigenous communities, the Tohono O’odham, the Yaqui Nation. It is the causing of division and chaos in our communities, bringing hate people and vigilantes into our community, and all of us expelling and exporting anti-immigrant measures. We really need to stop this before, really, it is too late.

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