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Arizona Man Arrested for "Trying to Save Lives"

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The Arizona Daily Star reports that a 27 year old man named Walt Staton from Tucson, Arizona could be sentenced to up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine after being convicted of littering on federal land. His litter: containers of water. The criminal act: leaving water in the Sonoran Desert for illegal immigrants. The Sonoran Desert in the Southwestern part of the United States is a beautiful and unique ecosystem, admired by visitors for its fantastic rock formations, 'sky island' mountain ranges, and distinctive saguaro cacti. But the Sonoran Desert is also unforgiving and brutal; without water, a human in the Southwest desert will die within a few days.

Staton is a volunteer with the Tucson non profit group No More Deaths. Founded in 2004 by Tucson religious leaders and social activists to combat what they deemed "a morally intolerable situation," the organization's main goal is to save lives by providing assistance to migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert, including food and medical help, but mostly water. Their simple motto, "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime," reflects the ongoing struggle between the organization and law enforcement officials; the 'news' section of their website consists mostly of accounts of arrests of organization volunteers. Walt Staton is now part of a lengthy and growing list of No More Death volunteers fined, charged, and convicted of a crime: current press releases discuss the conviction of volunteer Dan Mills in March and fines imposed on two more volunteers last December, all for dropping unopened containers of water in the desert. But Staton's attorney, William Walker, was still shocked at the verdict. In the Daily Star article, Walker decried both the cost and the reasoning behind the trial and conviction, saying in part, "This trial must have cost the government more than $50,000. They say there aren't enough agents on the border...and then they spend all of this time and money prosecuting a humanitarian who is putting out water to save lives."

Among politicians, immigration is still a hot-button topic. Republicans and Democrats discuss reforming and changing U.S. immigration policy with little or no agreement on how, even within their own parties. No More Deaths has a more acute concern: while the discussion continues, people are dying. As I reported in April 2009 for Huffington Post (The Consequences of a Wall: More Deaths Along AZ Border) even as illegal border crossing numbers go down, the number of those who die trying to cross the border is rising. Border walls and increased security measures have driven the desperate deeper and deeper into the desert. The terrain is rougher, they walk longer, more die. And the death is horrible: in 1909, a scientist named W. G. McGee penned a graphic description of what happens to the human body deprived of water in the harsh Southwestern desert. In a biography of McGee written by his sister Emma, the long description of a man found dying in the desert begins with the statement: "There is no death more cruel than that of the 'desert thirst,'" and continues with descriptions of the effect of dehydration and the desert sun on muscles ("Strong arms and legs were shrunken to the bone"), skin ("His flesh was dry and black'), and parts of his body ("His tongue was shriveled to a mere bunch of tegument, very black"). This is what drives Walt Staton and other volunteers to continue to 'litter' the desert. As quoted in the Daily Star article, Staton said: "I was just trying to save lives. I was trying to end the death and suffering in the desert."

A small box in the upper corner of the No More Deaths website keeps a running count of the number of migrants found dead in the state of Arizona, a stark reminder of the organization's reason for existence. Today the number reads 79. This resident of the desert wonders how many of those human beings would have been spared so terrible a death if humanitarian aid was not deemed a crime by a court of law.