A group of about 60 faith leaders and border activists hiked deep into a wildlife refuge in southwestern Arizona on Sunday, dropping plastic containers of water in the desert to save the lives of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The activists trekked in over 100-degree heat through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and delivered a total of 125 gallons of water, according to No More Deaths, a Unitarian Universalist ministry that provides water and first aid to migrants.
Thousands of people have died in Arizona’s deserts while illegally crossing the border, The Associated Press reports. No More Deaths says at least 128 bodies were recovered just last year, including 57 in the desert near Ajo, where clergy focused their action on Sunday.
“It’s absolutely tragic and heartbreaking that we live in a nation where we criminalize people for exercising a right that we all implicitly have: the right to move,” stated Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
“It’s absolutely tragic and heartbreaking that we live in a nation where we criminalize people for exercising a right that we all implicitly have: the right to move.”
Since the mid-1990s, U.S. Border Patrol crackdowns have forced migrants to travel along more remote and dangerous routes to get to the United States. Ninety-five people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were detained near Lukeville, Arizona, just a week before Sunday’s activism, the AP reported.
No More Deaths has been working for years to provide humanitarian aid and raise awareness about the perils migrants face, but activists say that federal agencies have recently started targeting them for their work along the border.
In January, hours after No More Deaths released a report about Border Patrol agents destroying water aid stations in the Arizona desert, a volunteer with the group was arrested and charged with harboring two people who were in the country illegally. The activist, Scott Warren, has been accused of giving migrants food and water inside a building in Ajo.
No More Deaths says a total of nine of its volunteers currently face misdemeanor charges for offering support to migrants on restricted federal lands. Volunteers face varying charges that include entering a wilderness area without a permit, driving in a wilderness area and abandonment of property, a No More Deaths representative told HuffPost.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management claims the volunteers were littering, the Arizona Republic reported. Those cases are still pending in federal court.
Clergy and lay leaders from the Unitarian Universalist Association led Sunday’s action, with representation from Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Jewish denominations who flew in from across the country, said Michael Givens, a spokesperson for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s humanitarian arm.
Givens told HuffPost that agents with the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service took down the information of volunteers who participated in Sunday’s event as they entered the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. He said he’s not sure if the volunteers will receive citations for their participation.
The Bureau of Land Management referred HuffPost to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for questions about Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
Beth Ullenberg, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s southwest region, told HuffPost that the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge works with federal, state and local agencies to “humanely address illegal immigration.”
The refuge has set up 10 rescue beacons to help undocumented border-crossers in life-threatening situations contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection for help, she said.
“[The refuge’s] location along the international border provides a unique opportunity to protect remnants of a fragile desert ecosystem and to provide habitat for some of the region’s most imperiled species of plants and wildlife,” Ullenberg said. “The Refuge strives to balance the needs of wildlife and the visiting public while managing the complexity of illegal border activity.”
Ullenberg did not reply to HuffPost’s questions about charges or citations against No More Deaths volunteers, saying those questions should be directed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson, Arizona.
That office declined to comment to HuffPost about the nine volunteers and whether anyone who participated in Sunday’s action would face penalties.
“Humanitarian aid is not a criminal offense. We weren’t looking to break the law, we were looking to save lives.”
Rabbi Brant Rosen, a Reconstructionist rabbi from Chicago, told HuffPost that one of the reasons he flew to Arizona to participate in the action was to protest the “criminalization” of humanitarian work.
“I don’t believe this was an act of civil disobedience,” he said. “Humanitarian aid is not a criminal offense. We weren’t looking to break the law, we were looking to save lives.”
Rosen said that as the grandson of immigrants and a Jewish rabbi whose people have been “hunted in certain times of our history,” he felt it was important to show his support for migrants who face the harsh climate of the desert in their search for a better life.
“I want people to know the consequences of their nation’s policies,” he said. “I want people to know that this is being done with their money and in their name as Americans.”
This story has been updated to note the specific charges against the nine volunteers.