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Border Patrol raids No More Deaths camp, arrest migrants seeking medical care

Armed with a warrant, Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents raided the No More Deaths camp in the desert south of Arivaca on Thursday and arrested four Mexican men suspected of entering the country without authorization, violating a tenuous agreement between the agency and the humanitarian aid group. 

On Tuesday afternoon Border Patrol agents began conducting surveillance of Byrd Camp, a collection of military surplus tents, trailers, and shacks where volunteers work to provide water food and medicine to those crossing the desert, just a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, a spokeswoman for No More Deaths, or No Mas Muertes, said.

The agents set up a cordon around the camp along with a "temporary checkpoint" used to "search and interrogate" those leaving about their immigration status, she said. 

This was an" egregious abuse" and  "clear violation of international humanitarian law and a violation of the organization’s written agreement with the Tucson Sector Border Patrol," wrote Alicia Dinsmore, a spokeswoman for the group. 

Dinsmore said that the presence of Border Patrol has deterred people from getting humanitarian assistance during a period of deadly heat in the deserts around Tucson.

BP continued watching the camp until around 6 p.m. Thursday, when approximately 30 agents, including more than a dozen trucks, all-terrain vehicles, and a helicopter, were on hand to serve a warrant for the arrest of the men, who were receiving medical care, she said. 

Following the arrests, the umbrella agency for Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also sent out a tweet from the Arizona office's account about the incident, releasing photos and writing: "Nogales #CBP #USBP agents serve warrant and arrest 4 at No More Deaths camp in Arivaca, Arizona. #HonorFirst." 

The Border Patrol's own account followed up, defending the agents' actions by writing that "crossing the border illegally is a crime" and noting the federal code that outlines federal law on entering the county illegally. The tweet also wrote that if a person is "observed" crossing the border they are "arrestable on site." If they are not observed, agents with probable cause should secure a warrant. 

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Hours later, Tucson Sector officials released a press release, saying that on Wednesday agents using "surveillance technology" spotted four men wearing camouflage walking north on a "known smuggling route." 

Other agents tracked the men to the No More Deaths camp, but "did not find foot sign of the individuals leaving the camp," he wrote. The spokesman wrote that agents "reached out to No Mas Muertes Camp representatives to continue a positive working relationship and resolve the situation amicably." 

"The talks, however, were unsuccessful," he said. 

"As a result, the Border Patrol was compelled to seek a search warrant to question the four suspected illegal aliens as to their citizenship and legal right to be present in the United States," he said. 

Two of the men had "prior significant criminal records in the United States," he said. The agent also said that two men required medical care at a local hospital. 

The agent did not make it clear if the men with a criminal history required treatment or not. 

The raid violated a long-standing agreement between members of No More Deaths and Tucson Sector officials put into place in 2013 by former Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla. Padilla left the Tucson Sector in 2015 to take charge of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and since then the sector has been led by Chief Paul Beeson and then Deputy Chief Felix Chavez. 

On June 7, CBP officials announced that Rodolfo "Rudy" Karisch had become the chief patrol agent for the Tucson Sector. 

Rev. John Fife, one of the founders of No More Deaths, criticized Border Patrol's actions, saying that since 2013, the agency has had a written agreement with the group that it will treat the camp "as a medical facility under the International Red Cross standards, which  prohibit government interference with humanitarian aid centers," he said. 

"That agreement now has been violated by the Border Patrol under the most suspicious circumstances," Fife said. 

"The Border Patrol acknowledged that they tracked a group for 18 miles, but only after the migrants sought medical treatment did the Border Patrol seek to arrest them. The choice to interdict these people only after they entered the No More Deaths’ camp is direct evidence that this was a direct attack on humanitarian aid. At the same time, the weather forcast is for record-setting deadly temperatures," Fife said. 

Southern Arizona remains under an extreme heat warning through the weekend as temperatures are expected to reach highs from 106 to 120 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. 

"Today’s raid on the medical aid station is unacceptable and a break in our good faith agreements with Border Patrol to respect the critical work of No More Deaths," said Katie Morgan, a coordinator with the group. 

This isn't the first time that No More Deaths and Border Patrol have locked horns over the camp's inviolability. 

In 2014, agents attempted to search the camp, but were rebuffed. In March 2016, the agency set up surveillance around the camp for more than 48 hours after No More Deaths volunteers refused to allow them to search the camp. 

Ironically, the agency raided the camp just after Tucson and Yuma Sector officials sent out press releases highlighting the dangers of extreme heat. 

Tucson Sector officials announced in English and Spanish that agents and resources were being reassigned from across the sector to areas "known for an increase in the number of people who will need to be rescued; especially migrants entering the U.S. illegally south of Ajo, Arizona." 

"It is physically impossible for the average person to carry sufficient water to avoid life-threatening dehydration during the course of several days in the desert," an agency spokesman wrote. "In addition, a lack of infrastructure in remote areas make it impossible to quickly find help in an emergency. As a result, Border Patrol agents often encounter migrants unprepared to trek across the desert." 

"Arizona’s desert shows no mercy for those unprepared for its remote, harsh terrain and unpredictable weather," he said. 

A similar statement was released by Brett Worsencroft, a spokesman with the Yuma Sector, who wrote that as the temperatures continued to rise, Yuma Sector’s Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue, or BORSTAR team will "remain on high-alert to prevent the loss of life, whether community members on a summer outing, or people attempting to illegally enter the United States." 

"Illegally crossing the border in Yuma Sector could prove fatal any time of year but it is especially dangerous during the summer," Worsencroft wrote. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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CBP

Nogales Station Border Patrol agents arrested four Mexican men after raiding a humanitarian camp near the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday. The agents had a warrant to search No More Death's camp after surveilling the camp for more than 24 hours.