The chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector faced the music January 30 when an audience lobbed questions at him about destruction of water left in the desert for thirsty travelers.
Two events led to the meeting: First, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos released a report on January 17 that implicated Border Patrol agents in the slashing of more than three thousand water jugs volunteers had placed on migrant trails. Then, hours later, Border Patrol arrested a NMD volunteer and two migrants receiving aid in the town of Ajo, west of Tucson. Border Action Network sponsored the community forum at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson, which drew dozens of people, mostly members of humanitarian-aid groups.
“There can only be one motive (for destroying water) and that’s to kill people,” said Steve from Humane Borders. His group reported that their tanks of water in the desert have also been vandalized.
“I look at this as a very serious offense,” said Chief Rodolfo Karisch, who came from Texas to assume command of the Tucson Sector on August 20, 2017. “Why should we as law-enforcement officers go around destroying water bottles?” he asked. “It’s counterproductive.”
Karisch promised to investigate the charges, but had concerns about compromising the privacy of agents by making the results public. “There is no cookie-cutter approach to this,” he said. “Every case is different.”
Billy Peard, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, asked if Border Patrol has a policy “that spells out that this is not permitted.”
Since the NMD report was released, Karisch issued a directive to agents to leave water alone, he said. But the sector has no policy to guide agents who come into contact with humanitarian-aid workers.
Zaira Livier, from Lucha Unida de Padres y Estudiantes (United Struggle of Parents and Students), commented that the United Nations listed Mexico as a deadly conflict zone, second only to Syria.
“We’re talking about hundreds of people dying and disappearing [in Mexico] every year,” Livier said. This drives “a real humanitarian crisis on our border.”
Simply coming across the border illegally “should not constitute a death sentence,” Karisch said. The Border Patrol trains agents as paramedics to rescue and treat migrants in distress.
“There is a difference between giving someone water and food and sheltering them, hiding them,” Karisch said. “The statutes are very clear.”
Dr. Robin Reineke from the Colibrí Center for Human Rights works with the Pima County medical examiner to help families identify loved ones missing in the Arizona desert.
“I’ve seen the bones,” Reineke said. “We believe the work of No More Deaths is essential . . . Does Border Patrol target humanitarian-aid organizations?”
Karisch shook his head. “We will follow where our work takes us,” he said. “It’s nothing about targeting. It’s about following through . . . I cannot allow, not in this day and age, someone to come into the United States unchecked,” the chief continued, citing gruesome murders and beheadings in Mexico. “Make no mistake about it, that could traverse the border.”
Mike Wilson, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation west of Tucson, said, “I think the greatest casualty is trust . . . We live in fear of the Border Patrol.”
Karisch told tribal member David Garcia that he attended cultural training offered by the Nation and requires his agents to take the course. He doesn’t want agents to make people afraid, he said. “I want to make these border areas safer.”
The Reverend Alison Harrington from Southside Presbyterian Church asked Karisch if he had read the NMD report.
“No, I have not,” Karisch said. He added, “I have not seen a signed agreement between Border Patrol and humanitarian-aid groups since I have been here.”
Paige Corich-Kleim, a NMD volunteer, read a proposed agreement. It asks the Border Patrol to leave water, food, clothing, and medical supplies untouched; refrain from threatening, arresting, or citing humanitarian-aid workers; protect medical aid provided by volunteers; and train agents in the Red Cross code of conduct and respect for the mission of humanitarian agencies.
“Is this something you can agree on?” Corich-Kleim asked.
“No, I need to take this and read it,” Karisch answered. The Border Patrol union would have to be involved in any such agreement, he added.
After the forum, the Reverend John Fife explained how he had helped negotiate the same agreement with several Border Patrol chiefs over the years.
“With each sector chief, the rules have changed,” Fife said.
By Denise Holley. Featured photo (video still): US Border Patrol Agent David Kermes pours out gallons of water intended to save border crossers’ lives.