Twenty-Five Days in Federal Prison for Littering? Border Patrol Cracking Down on Human Rights Activists

Walt Staton was dropping off water jugs for people who attempt the often deadly trek into Arizona from Mexico when the Feds ticketed him for “knowingly littering.”

On Friday December 4th, an Arizona District Court judge told Walt Staton, a 28 year-old seminary student, that he might be facing 25 days in a federal prison. His crime was “knowingly littering” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

One day last December, Staton and a friend named Victor Ceballos, loaded 70 plastic water jugs into the back of a truck and drove from Tucson to outer stretches of Sonora desert. Temperatures in the desert are extreme, reaching 120 degrees during summer months and dropping below 30 degrees in the winter. Many people who attempt the four-day trek between the Mexico border and Phoenix do not survive; this year, a human rights group found the remains of 206 people. The main causes of death, the group believes, are heat overexposure or hypothermia, but corpses decompose so quickly in the desert that it is often impossible to tell.

Staton and Ceballos are volunteers for a group called No More Deaths, which offers humanitarian aid to those trying to cross the Mexico-Arizona border. Volunteers hand out water bottles and socks; they provide food and basic medical care. These actions carry risks of their own; in July 2005, two No More Deaths volunteers were charged with multiple felonies for driving three travelers to get medical care. Their case was eventually dismissed.

When it comes to the water bottles, volunteers are precise; they monitor each drop-off point to see if they’ve left too many or too few and they pick up any debris. “We put the water jugs right on the trail. So you can’t miss them. Because a lot of people walk at night,” Staton explained in a phone interview with AlterNet.

“We hear stories from people about how they were literally crawling on the ground and thought they were going to die and came across gallon jugs of water and were able to live.”

It was ten days before Christmas when Staton and Ceballos were almost finished with their route. “We were dropping off 70 bottles total over five different locations,” Staton recalled. The second to last spot that day was the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, ten or so miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. As they were entering the refuge, Staton noticed a border patrol helicopter overhead. “That’s really common. We interact with border patrol quite a bit. I didn’t think anything of it.”

Staton wears dark-rimmed glasses and speaks with hushed restraint, as if handling an oversensitive microphone. He says that as they were leaving the site, a law enforcement agent and border patrol officer pulled them over. Staton, Ceballos, and two University of Arizona students, who were researching a term paper on No More Deaths, received tickets for littering.

Staton faced a 12-person jury in June. “The defendant left full plastic water jugs on the refuge with the intent to aid illegal immigrant traffic,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued, despite the fact that Staton’s charges were for littering alone “One need only to look at what is written on the plastic water jugs themselves to determine the true motive in leaving them. On many they state ‘Buena suerte,’ which means ‘Good luck’ in Spanish. The obvious conclusion is that the defendant and No More Deaths wish to aid illegal aliens in their entry attempt,” the prosecution wrote. (The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment for this article.)

Ceballos and the students had their charges dismissed, but Staton was found guilty. He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and was forbidden from entering the refuge for a year. Staton decided to appeal. “I still can’t conceive of this as being a crime,” Staton says. “I’m not asking the judge to lessen the community service. I’m letting her know that I’m not going to do it at all. Not one hour, not 300 hours. I’d like to see the court stand up for international human rights.”

In a letter to Judge Jennifer Guerin, Staton explained his reason for appealing the case and for not complying with his sentence. “My decision to place sealed gallon jugs of water along trails used by migrants to cross remote areas of the Sonoran desert should be understood as an attempt on my part to uphold international human rights law, specifically the right to life,” he wrote. He cited three reports — by the ACLU and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — accusing the U.S. of neglecting human rights law with its border policies.

“Humanitarian aid is never a crime” is No More Death’s tagline. The phrase is printed on their website, on their posters, and t-shirts. They do not consider their work to be civil disobedience — that would require intentionally breaking the law — but implicit to their efforts is the belief that international human rights law supersedes U.S. homeland security concerns, not unlike the legal argument for forbidding waterboarding or shutting down Guantanamo. “We don’t think Walt committed any crime by putting out fresh clean jugs of pure water to save human lives on the refuge,” Bill Walker, Staton’s attorney has said.

AlterNet spoke to Staton on Thursday, the day before his resentencing hearing. He was in a break between classes and said he was feeling “pretty optimistic” about his case. It wasn’t clear whether to believe him or whether he just has a strong distaste for drama, particularly when he is at the center of it. At the end of our conversation, I told him I’d get in touch with him following his hearing the next day. “Hopefully,” he responded and let out a nervous laugh.

On Friday, the day of his resentencing hearing, No More Deaths volunteers gathered outside the courthouse. They had set up 206 cardboard gravestones along the side of the building — marking the number of migrant deaths in the desert this year. A woman wearing a headdress and frayed black and white pants stomped to the beat of a tambourine. Staton addressed the crowd. “I’m here to offer an invitation. I’m inviting this court to take an opportunity to reconsider the sentencing against me and their overall stance on how they treat humanitarian workers and migrants.”

The hearing lasted 20 minutes; Judge Guerin denied his request to modify or suspend his sentence and threatened Staton with 25 days in federal prison for disobeying court orders. Judge Guerin will hear his appeal on December 21st, when the final sentence will be issued. No More Deaths has started organizing a letter writing campaign to Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and to Arizona District Attorney’s office.

A couple of days after the hearing, Staton was back at school in Los Angeles. He was noticeably shaken, and there was a trace of anger in his voice where there hadn’t been. “You shouldn’t be acting in fear of punishment if you’re doing human rights work,” he said. “You just shouldn’t.”