Water Rights

A No More Deaths activist faces prison after refusing his sentence for 'littering'

On Dec. 4, a year after he was cited for littering on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, activist Walt Staton was back in federal court, because he refused to pick up garbage.

Staton, a seminary student, told Magistrate Jennifer Guerin that he couldn't in good conscience agree to 300 hours of trash-gathering community service, imposed as part of his sentence for placing water jugs on the refuge. The water is meant for the thousands of undocumented immigrants passing through the 118,000-acre border-area preserve each year.

So goes the latest twist in this false competition between conservation and humanitarian concerns on the refuge—a confusing fight which has seen the U.S. Department of Interior offering carrots, even as Mike Hawkes, its manager of the Buenos Aires, adopts an increasingly trenchant stance against the immigrant-assistance group No More Deaths.

Hawkes now keeps handy a bumper sticker mocking the group's slogan, "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime."

"Littering is always a crime," says the hand-printed sticker he hauls out of his desk drawer for reporters.

At the same time, at least two bodies have been found on the Buenos Aires in recent months (Hawkes contends the deaths weren't water-related), and the taxpayer tab for prosecuting these littering cases continues to rise.

Nor does the refuge manager show any restraint when it comes to Staton. "I expect he'll go to prison," he tells me, "if he's not cooperating with the court."

All of which highlights an apparent disconnect within the federal government over this issue. Consider that in July, a handful of No More Deaths volunteers were invited to Washington, D.C., where they met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to discuss the Buenos Aires conflict. That same month, federal law-enforcement officials were on hand to ticket 13 more humanitarian volunteers as they put out water on the refuge.

While there appears to be a genuine desire for conciliation in Salazar's office, some observers say that Hawkes and his overseers at Southwest Region Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., are embracing the get-tough approach. Tom Harvey, Fish and Wildlife's Albuquerque-based refuge supervisor for Arizona and New Mexico, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

While Hawkes tells the Tucson Weekly that negotiations are ongoing with the activists, others contend that the refuge manager has no intention of reaching a compromise. They point to the fact that Hawkes has rejected two permit applications from No More Deaths to place water on the refuge, with the latest thumbs-down coming just last month.

It's exasperating, says Margo Cowan, an attorney for the group. "You know, we've tried really hard. We took a medical doctor (to the meetings with Hawkes). We took a gentleman who does all of our mapping, and he was a former department head at the UA. There was a pastor there, and myself. We tried very, very hard to figure out ways to accommodate everybody's concerns."

Although Hawkes' primary sticking point has been the one-gallon water jugs placed on the refuge by activists, Cowan says that litter seems to be the least of his worries now. "We offered to carry out twice as much trash as the bottles that we bring in, and (refuge officials) just rejected that out of hand."

Still, behind-the-scenes maneuvering may soon neutralize Hawkes' hard-line approach, says one source who spoke to the Tucson Weekly who asked not to be named, due to the sensitivity of negotiations. According to the source, prosecutions of the 13 humanitarian volunteers cited in July have been placed on hold by Dennis Burke, the new U.S. attorney for Arizona.

In addition, says the source, Tucson lawyer Bates Butler—himself a former U.S. attorney for Arizona—has been in discussions with Burke's office on behalf of No More Deaths.

A spokeswoman for Burke declined to comment on the No More Deaths cases. But Butler confirmed the meetings. "I've just had some discussions about the policy," he says. "And that's really all I've got to say."

Regardless, any shift in policy isn't necessarily going to come soon enough to help Staton. In a Nov. 2 letter to Magistrate Guerin, Staton argued that current Border Patrol policies violate international human-rights law, since they push immigrants into remote and dangerous desert areas. Countering those policies by putting out water, he wrote, is simply a humanitarian act of conscience.

"Given the above philosophical and moral reasons, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to undertake the task of completing the 300 hours of community service assigned by the court," Staton wrote. "At this point, I will not complete any amount of community service, nor pay any amount of fines."

But Magistrate Guerin noted that Staton's guilt had been determined by a jury, and by defying the sentence, he was simply disrespecting the court.

She said she didn't want to send him to jail back during his initial sentencing in August. "I didn't think that was appropriate then, and I don't think it's appropriate now. ... But if you defy what the court has ordered, you will be punished for your defiance."

Guerin then threatened to send Staton to federal prison for 25 days. Another hearing is slated for Dec. 21.

Outside the courthouse, No More Deaths volunteers and supporters were rallying on his behalf. Among them was the Rev. John Fife, who helped lead the sanctuary movement in the 1980s. His movement gained international attention by running an underground railroad for refugees fleeing the wars in Central America. Fife was also among a handful of sanctuary activists tried and convicted by the federal government for illegally harboring those refugees.

Today, he says, the parallels are unnerving. "I think all of us were hopeful, with the change in the administration. But now, I think it's clear that the Obama administration and (Homeland Security Secretary) Janet Napolitano believe—and are acting on their belief—that in order to get an (immigrant) legalization program through Congress, they have to look tougher and militarize the border more. It's more of the same, only maybe redoubled."

And that makes Staton's situation a bit too familiar. "For decades now, faith communities and people of conscience have had to resist violations of human rights by the government," Fife says.

Twenty years after Sanctuary was put on trial, "it is clear that we were right. Our actions have been vindicated. And now people like Walt Staton have to stand up and continue to resist violations of human rights and international law."