09/07/2010 04:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Water Is Not Waste

Tucson -- In early 2008 Daniel Millis, along with two other people, was convicted by a U.S. Magistrate of littering Arizona's Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Today Millis is a grass-roots organizer for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, and regularly leads volunteer trips to clean up litter from public lands along the border. But Millis is not a reformed tosser of snack wrappers off the trail -- nor is his work with the Sierra Club community service for earlier trash tossing.

Last week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Millis's conviction, ruling that what he actually did (placing gallon containers of purified water in locations where economic migrants have died while crossing the Refuge in an effort to reach the U.S.) did not violate the littering law. Millis himself had found the body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl near the spot where he was arrested only two days earlier.

In overturning the conviction, the 9th Circuit found that "water is not waste," and that what Millis was doing was providing humanitarian aid. You might think this would be obvious -- after all, even on a battlefield, one of the basic rules of warfare is to provide water to the wounded or captured soldiers of the other side. But Millis was initially convicted, and one of the three 9th Circuit Judges who heard the case voted to uphold his conviction.

It's sad that individuals like Millis have to act on their own to prevent people from dying of thirst in the desert. But until we fix the root causes that drive economic refugees north towards the United States from places like El Salvador, we are blessed to have humanitarians like Dan.

If federal judges want evidence of real environmental damage associated with cross-border migration, they might take a second look at the border wall section that snakes through the Otay mountains wilderness area. Here, in an effort to pretend to do something about border security, more than half a million cubic yards of rock have been bulldozed and dumped into desert washes. This, if anything, would seem to be dumping! And Department of Homeland Security didn't even pretend to follow environmental statutes in doing the bulldozing; then-Secretary Michael Chertoff simply waived compliance with the law. Federal Courts found this just fine.