No More Deaths Report

by journojames on February 6, 2012

Originally published Feb. 28, 2011

LOS ANGELES, CA – A volunteer with a faith-based humanitarian organization said Thursday that he didn’t do anything wrong, even though he was arrested and convicted in federal court for leaving jugs of water out in the desert for thirsty illegal border crossers.

Emrys "Walt" Staton, Photo courtesy of Big Bear Observation Post

Emrys “Walt” Staton, a member of the group No More Deaths and a graduate student at Claremont School of Theology, told a small audience at the University of Southern California that he was ticketed and arrested because of water bottles. He told the story of how he was cited for littering in December 2008; he put eight 1-gallon water jugs out in the Arizona desert near the U.S.-Mexico border. He said he regularly put water out to keep migrants from dying of thirst when crossing the border.

Staton said a federal court convicted him in June 2009 and sentenced him to 300 hours of community service. He said he appealed his conviction and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco eventually overturned it. He said his littering charges were finally vacated last month.

Volunteers preparing water jugs. Photo courtesy of wagingnonviolence.org

“This is about human survival,” said Staton. “Some argue that my behavior only encourages people to illegally cross the border. By the time people are crossing the desert, they made up their minds to cross long before they saw my water jugs.”

For several years, humanitarian groups like Tucson-based No More Deaths have been leaving 1-gallon water jugs for migrants in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a 118,000-acre reserve. According to “Arizona Daily Star’s” border death database, more than 200 bodies of illegal border crossers were found in 2010 in the Altar Valley, where the refuge is located.

Refuge manager Mike Hawkes said in a “New York Times” interview last year that the jugs were “garbage” and an “eyesore.”

“This is a national wildlife refuge,” Hawkes said in the article. “This is supposed to be a special place. They are putting out tens of thousands of bottles in the environment every year.”

Hawkes went on to call No More Deaths an anti-government organization whose goal was to make sure every illegal border crosser had a safe and comfortable trip.

“The littering law is a good law,” said Staton during his speech. “But if you apply this law to watering jugs when you have hundreds of people dying, it’s not a good law to me and it’s questionable.”

Staton went on to say that getting more volunteers and more jugs of water would help the situation, but he also admitted that this was just a Band-Aid solution. He said the real challenge was working towards changing U.S. immigration policy.

Maryada Valet of “Sojourners” magazine also spoke briefly about her humanitarian efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border at the event. She talked about her experiences in Nogalos, Mexico where she helped deported families and documented human rights abuses reported by those deported.

USC Religious Center, Photo courtesy of USC

Theresa, an international U.S.C. graduate student from China, was in the audience and considering a trip to help volunteer with No More Deaths.

“I liked the talk,” she said. “I liked it because these people have really been exposed to the experiences so you can have more insights. His point of mentioning the U.S. policy and its impact was very important.”

Rabbi Lori Schneide of the Hillel Jewish Center was also in the audience.

“I think they really expressed their humanitarian interests and their humanitarian backgrounds,” Schneide said. “I think it’s one facet of a very complex, motley issue, so I think hearing their voices is important, but I think we need to have a diverse number of voices.”

Staton concluded his speech by saying that activists for U.S. immigration reform must have patience. He said his faith in his religion and in God, which helped him see the bigger picture, helped him through the trial and has helped sustain his activism.

Members of No More Deaths, Photo courtesy of United Methodist Women

“It’s been a crazy journey,” said Staton. “For me, having faith and a faith community provided a stable base while being engaged in my daily struggles. There’s something we know that’s bigger than us, that’s sort of holding our families and communities together. That’s having faith. That’s how I’m trying to think about things.”

Staton’s speech was entitled “No More Border Deaths: Interfaith Border Justice Action.” U.S.C.’s Office of Religious Life sponsored the event. Staton addressed U.S.C. students, faculty and staff at the University Religious Center.

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