The Border Patrol arrested four undocumented border-crossers receiving medical attention at a humanitarian-aid station on June 15, breaking with years of precedent.
A helicopter, 15 trucks, two quadrant vehicles and 30 armed agents descended on the medical-aid station, federal search-warrants in hand, after tracking a group of migrants for 18 miles, according to the humanitarian-aid group, No More Deaths, which runs the medical-aid station in Arivaca, Arizona, less than 15 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border.
"Right now, the No More Deaths humanitarian-aid station is not a place that is safe to provide humanitarian aid," said Eva Lewis, a No More Deaths volunteer. "There's a lot of people in dire medical need who are coming through the desert, and it's really important that those people have a place to seek medical aid without fear of incarceration and/or fear of deportation."
The Pima County Medical Examiner has received 2,615 sets of human remains from 2001 through 2016 recovered in the Tucson Sector border region. Historically, the number of deaths peak during June and July due to extreme heat. In 2016, 31 percent of human remains were recovered during these hotter months.
Humanitarian groups along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border say the total number of deaths is around 7,000 since border policy toughened in 1998.
According to NMD, the group has had an unsigned but written agreement with the Tucson Sector Border Patrol since 2013, with the federal agency pledging not to interfere with the humanitarian camp that provides life-saving medical treatment to many migrants every year.
Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ03) wrote a letter to Interim Border Patrol Chief Felix Chavez on Monday, June 19, which reiterated that Border Patrol established a written agreement in 2013, saying it would respect the group's medical facility "under the International Red Cross standards that prohibit government interference with humanitarian aid centers."
Grijalva added that Chavez himself reaffirmed this agreement in April of this year and requested that Border Patrol immediately provide written details of changes to the established agreement.
"This is breaking that protocol—breaking it in a very profound way," Grijalva said in an interview with the Tucson Weekly. "Strictly as humanitarian relief, there should be an attitude on the part of Border Patrol that this work needs to be done. It's saving lives."
Congressman Tom O´Halleran (D-AZ01) did not have a comment about the arrests, and Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-AZ02) did not respond to requests for comment.
Border Patrol public affairs official Chris Sullivan said the only agreement they've had with No More Deaths is to have open lines of communication.
"We can't make promises on our enforcement actions," he said. "We have a job to do as Border Patrol agents to enforce immigration laws, but at the same time, we have similar goals as No More Deaths in that we want to value human life. One of the ways we do that is by providing emergency medical services. We don't want anyone to die across the border."
Sullivan said that if people are in trouble they should call 911. But migrants crossing the border often don't or can't call for help, and humanitarian groups are worried that the arrests at the No More Deaths camp will deter people in need from seeking help.
Using surveillance technology, Border Patrol detected the four suspected border-crossers on Tuesday, tracked them to the humanitarian-aid camp and arrested them for immigration violations, Border Patrol said in the statement, adding that one of the migrants has prior felony drug convictions and spent five years in prison in Chihuahua, Mexico, for drug trafficking.
According to No More Deaths, Border Patrol agents set up a sensor and camera close to the camp's entrance on Tuesday afternoon as well as a temporary checkpoint where they were asking people leaving the camp about their citizenship status.
Sullivan said agents would have apprehended the migrants before they entered the camp, given the opportunity. He also said they do not actively surveil humanitarian-aid camps.
But it remains unclear why Border Patrol couldn't apprehend them sooner if they were aware of their location since Tuesday, June 13. Some think it was an intentional move to deter humanitarian groups from helping migrants. "This was a targeted attack on humanitarian aid," said Mo More Death's Lewis. "This was an attempt to intimidate and prevent the camp from being able to function in a humanitarian role." At the time of the arrests, the migrants had been assessed by doctors and were receiving medical treatment from emergency medical technicians volunteering with No More Deaths. "They were people who had been walking in the desert and were in bad medical shape and needed continued medical care," Lewis said.
Border Patrol said in a statement that agents trained as EMTs assessed the migrants as being in "good health" but nonetheless took them to a local hospital, where the staff determined they did not require further medical attention.
Last month, Border Patrol arrested eight migrants from the humanitarian-aid camp. In that incident, the migrants chose to go into custody. "Sometimes people choose to go into custody for a variety of reasons," Lewis said. "We just try to provide people with information, and then people make their own choices."
For 13 years, No More Deaths has worked to provide food, water and medical care to migrants crossing the desert of the Arizona-Mexico border. "We're going to continue in our mission to end deaths and suffering in the desert," Lewis said.