Tribe Divided Over Providing Water to Illegal Migrants Crossing Indian Land

The pair of humanitarian aid workers refused. But when they returned to the border area days later, they found three of their water stations had been removed.

“It’s unconscionable that the Tohono O’odham tribal council not only does absolutely nothing to prevent migrant deaths but are now confiscating my water stations,” said Wilson. “That’s the situation that I’m in.”

The Tohono O’odham Nation is the second largest Indian reservation in the country and shares 76 miles of border with Mexico. Located in one of the most active corridors for illegal border activity, the Tohono O’odham Nation is also home to nearly half of all migrant deaths that occur in the state of Arizona.

Wilson and Garcia have ignored orders to stop putting out water in the Baboquivari district on the Tohono O’odham Nation since 2002. The pair operates a total of six water stations for migrants: five on the U.S. ground of the Tohono O’odham reservation and one just across the border in Mexico. The pair works with humanitarian aid organization Humane Borders to put water in areas used by migrants illegally entering the United States — areas that have historically seen high rates of deaths associated with dehydration.

“The Tohono O’odham tribal government has a moral responsibility to prevent migrant deaths on Tohono O’odham tribal lands,” said Wilson. “We as native people must be held equally accountable as every other citizen in this country and the moral bar must be just as high for us as anyone else.”

Eight years ago, Humane Borders President Robin Hoover approached the tribe about putting water stations on the reservation. The tribe refused to allow the organization to operate on tribal land, claiming their activities would attract more migrants.

Despite the tribe’s refusal to work with Humane Borders, Wilson put the water stations out anyway. Humane Borders funds his efforts, but the stations on the reservation are technically not operated by the humanitarian group itself.

In July 2002, the Baboquivari district passed a resolution to stop Wilson from putting water on the reservation, but never enforced it. Wilson believes public pressure and media support allowed him to continue without harassment.

“The O’odham will tell us that they’re afraid of the migrants because they’ll come driving through at all hours of the day and night. They’ll say they spend a lot of money on search and rescue, which they do. They’ll say they spend a lot of money on getting people re-hydrated,” said Robin Hoover. “The truth of the matter is that if anything that they say is true that’s all the more reason to put water stations out there because you can direct people away from the communities, spend less money on search and rescue, spend less money on re-hydration, and you wouldn’t have as many people in conflict in the little communities.”

Several calls were made to Tohono O’odham officials, the Baboquivari District and tribal public relations officers for comment, but none were returned. Both the United States and the Tohono O’odham have jurisdiction over border security in the area, however, the Tohono O’odham tribal council and its eleven district chairpersons have final say over the reservation’s lands and its uses.

“I’m calling this confiscation of the water stations crimes against humanity,” said Wilson. “I’ve been saying that for several years, and I’m saying it again: to remove the water stations on the Tohono O’odham Nation is a crime against humanity.”

According to Sarah Paoletti, Wilson may have a legitimate human rights argument. Paoletti is the director of the Trans-National Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think for advocates representing migrants the argument is that actions are being taken that are going to deprive [an] individual’s right to life,” said Paoletti. “There is knowledge that without providing water, given the numbers of people dying in the desert and the numbers of those deaths attributable to hypothermia and dehydration, that the U.S. has an affirmative obligation to ensure that an individual’s life is protected.”

Despite the tribe’s efforts to physically remove water stations, Wilson says he will return to replace them as well as move to open dialogue with tribal officials. “If that doesn’t work, I plan to organize a boycott of the Tohono O’odham tribal casinos,” said Wilson. “If the tribal council does not respond to public pressure they will respond immediately to the threat of economic pressure.”

Two of the Tohono O’odham’s three casinos are located in the Tuscon area and are the main source of income for the tribe.

“It’s extreme,” said Wilson, “but I’m tired of 80 or 90 migrants dying on the nation and the nation looking the other way.”

According to border patrol records, between January and June of this year, 83 bodies were recovered on Tohono O’odham lands.

“Whether [migrants] have water or not there are other reasons why these individuals are trying to come into this country,” said Paoletti. “We can debate immigration policy and we can debate about whether or not certain individuals have a right to be in this country, but I don’t think that the debate should be whether or not they die on the border.”