Meeting With the Secretary

Has the Interior Department opened a window to migrant aid on the Buenos Aires?

On July 21, a half-dozen members of the migrant-assistance group No More Deaths met with the secretary of the interior in Washington, D.C.

They talked about water.

Specifically, they met with Secretary Ken Salazar in the midst of an ugly standoff between management at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge—on the U.S.-Mexico border southwest of Tucson—and groups such as No More Deaths and Humane Borders. Humane Borders has three water stations on the 118,000-acre preserve, but wants more. No More Deaths is asking to leave 1-gallon water jugs along heavily used migrant trails.

This is what many consider the deadliest stretch of borderland in Arizona for illegal immigrants. According to map coordinates, it appears that at least one known migrant has perished on the refuge this year, and activists believe that another occurred there as well.

But Buenos Aires manager Mike Hawkes has taken a hard line against issuing further water permits to either group. Indeed, laws governing activities on refuges are quite stringent, with wildlife prioritized above all else. Still, many observers feel that Hawkes has more wiggle room than he's willing to admit. (Refuge managers, in fact, have great latitude regarding humanitarian efforts.)

As a result, two No More Deaths volunteers were convicted of littering on the refuge over the past few months, after they placed water jugs alongside migrant trails. One of the men, Walt Staton, faces up to a year in jail. (See "The Activist Question," July 9.)

The tussle reached a rather absurd crescendo on July 9, when a swarm of federal law-enforcement officials were on hand to ticket 13 more humanitarian volunteers as they put out water on the refuge.

Amid this acrimony came the call from Secretary Salazar's office—and that could be a game-changer. Or it might just be politics. Either way, it remains unclear whether the Buenos Aires—which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within the Interior Department—has backed off from Hawkes' tough stance.

Even as this shell game continued, Ed McCullough and several other No More Deaths volunteers were invited to meet with Jane Lyder, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. The message they toted back to Washington, D.C., was simple, says McCullough, a retired dean of the UA College of Science, and the group's official cartographer: "We told them there were people dying in the desert, and the primary cause of death was heat-related problems related to the lack of water. And we told them that we wanted to put water out.

"Secretary Salazar came in about 15 minutes after the meeting started and talked about his concern with what's happening to the migrants in the desert," McCullough recalls. "He said he's had a general concern about immigration problems for a very long time. He also said there were laws among the various government agencies, and anyone proposing what we're proposing would have to work within the law."

McCullough says he and the other volunteers left the meeting with a sense "that they wanted to work something out with the humanitarian groups."

If that's the case, it does signal a mood for compromise. But this is precisely where the rubber hits the road.

Hawkes was out of town and unavailable for comment. But in a recent interview with the Tucson Weekly, he made his position clear. When asked whether No More Deaths will be allowed to put out water, he replied: "Not the way they want to do it. But they can drive around the refuge and hand out cups of water all they want."

Meanwhile, Humane Borders already has its stations, "and we think we have a good coverage with that," Hawkes said in that interview. "We're trying to manage the refuge as a benefit to the wildlife it was established for."

The Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, doesn't agree that three stations are enough. Nor is he necessarily optimistic that Hawkes and his superiors will budge, especially after recounting a conference call several years ago with former Buenos Aires manager Mitch Ellis and Justin Tade, a lawyer at Fish and Wildlife's regional office in Albuquerque, N.M. "Tade flat-out told me not to apply for a new permit, because it would be denied," Hoover says. "Then he said, if asked, he would deny ever having that conversation."

Tade declined to comment when contacted by the Weekly.

Still, the question lingers: Does the meeting with Secretary Salazar represent a shift away from the hard line? Yes and no, according to Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jose Viramontes. "We've notified (No More Deaths) about the process for applying for special-use permits," he says, "which is essentially what they're asking for."

Again, there's the catch: While groups have always been able to apply for such permits—as can any citizen—it's largely meaningless if the application is sure to be denied. However, Viramontes says that's no longer the case. "Still, the thing about being on a wildlife refuge is that we have very limited latitude in what we can and cannot allow. It has to be a wildlife-dependent use, and we have to find a way that it's not going to negatively impact the resource."

So this seems to be a clash of attitudes and latitudes. In the end, it could even be considered a fabricated battle, instigated by Border Patrol policies to deliberately drive migrants into the deepest reaches of desert—including places such as the Buenos Aires. It seems that strategy has now managed to pit humanitarians against wildlife-refuge managers.

Meanwhile, the region that includes the Buenos Aires remains lethal, says McCullough. "From the information we have, it appears that in deaths per mile, that area between Nogales and Sasabe is almost as dangerous as any place along the border."

Through June of this year, that already amounted to approximately 30 dead people between Nogales and Sasabe, he says.