Humanitarian struggles to save lives

Reservation ban of water for migrants is reported
By Brady McCombs
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 09.03.2008

A Tohono O'odham tribe member who has been putting water in remote desert areas for the past seven years for the benefit of illegal immigrants says he has been told to stop.

The order was given Saturday morning while Mike Wilson was southwest of Sells on the reservation showing 11 non-tribal guests one of the four water stations he operates, Wilson said.

A Tohono O'odham police officer approached Wilson and said the district chairwoman, Veronica Harvey, had instructed her to tell Wilson to take down the water station and escort his guests off the reservation, Wilson said. He didn't take down the two 55-gallon water barrels but left with his guests, he said.

Tohono O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. confirmed Tuesday that Baboquivari District leaders asked Wilson and his guests to leave, but he said he has no knowledge of the request to remove the water station.
Phone calls to Harvey requesting comment were not returned.

The tribe has a standing decision not to allow humanitarian groups to place water on the reservation. Norris, who became chairman after that decision was made, has said the decision falls to the reservation's 11 districts because it's a matter of local concern. He said the same thing about the reported decision to ask Wilson and his guests to leave on Saturday.

"The tribal constitution authorizes each district to govern themselves on issues of local concern," Norris said. "This, in their view, is an issue of local concern."

Wilson gave the following account of Saturday's events:

Early that morning, Wilson and the group were at one of his water stations east of the village of Topawa on Federal Route 10, commonly known as Fresnal Canyon Road. He was talking about the history of his work in maintaining the water stations to eight seminary students from Denver, their professor and two retired Tucson pastors, the Rev. John Fife and the Rev. Gene Lefebvre.

A tribal police officer drove up to the group and told Wilson that she had received a complaint about non-tribal members being in the Baboquivari District. She told him that the Baboquivari District is a restricted district, which means O'odham are required to notify the board and get permission before bringing in any non-tribal guests, the officer said.

Wilson said he had never heard of the rule.

Fife said the officer told them she needed to check on the matter with the district and waited for 15 to 20 minutes before delivering the order to remove the station and to leave. She told the group that the seminary students were banned for life, Fife said.

After Wilson refused to take down the water station, the officer told Wilson that the district would do it. But as of Sunday, all the water stations were still up, Wilson said.

He said he believes he upset Harvey by bringing out such a large group of visitors.

The seminary students and their professor had been in Southern Arizona for about a week studying border issues, Fife said. They went with Wilson to learn more about the illegal-immigrant deaths on the reservation, he said.

Fife, the retired pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church and a leader in the old Sanctuary Movement, doesn't understand why the Baboquivari District kicked the group off or why it asked Wilson to remove the water station.
Fife has spent time on the reservation in his many years involved with border issues, including an internship on the Tohono O'odham Reservation in 1963.

Wilson's four water stations are in the Baboquivari Valley, which is the deadliest corridor for illegal immigrants in the United States.
The corridor had claimed the lives of 229 border crossers from the beginning of fiscal 2000 through November 2007 ― more than three times the average number of deaths in other segments of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, according to the Arizona Daily Star's analysis of 1,156 deaths recorded by the federal agency. Most immigrants died from the heat.

Seventy bodies of illegal immigrants were recovered on the Tohono O'odham Reservation in 2007, and 83 were found from Jan. 1 through June 12 of this year, the latest numbers available.

Wilson has experienced problems with his lifesaving efforts in the past.

From 2001 through 2003, the water jugs he placed in the desert were slashed by vandals on a continuous basis, he said. In September 2003, nearly a quarter of the 4,000 gallon jugs of water were slashed in one rash of vandalism.

Around 2003, he switched from water jugs to 55-gallon water barrels. In 2006, all eight barrels at the four stations were stolen.
"I'm upset that the Tohono O'odham Nation would continue in this ― what I consider a crime against humanity," Wilson said. "That they would take down my water stations."

● Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs [at] azstarnet [dot] com

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