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Guest opinion

Hoover: Border Patrol's 'hot water' claims are all wet

Here we go again. The Border Patrol is retaliating against humanitarians working to save lives in the desert. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council recently said on NPR, "If that water heats up in the desert, it's actually a lot more dangerous to drink extremely heated water than what it is if you don't have that water at all."

Fortunately, Judd does not speak for all agents, nor does he accurately reflect the formal Customs and Border Protection policies. His words, however, do reflect the changing corporate culture of the agency. That culture is now more forceful, less respectful of civil society, and more black and white (or more pointedly, brown and white.) Pursuing Trump-sanctioned policies will be very bad optics for the Trump administration because the Border Patrol will be shown not to understand basic physics, medicine, or solid social science.

Water in the desert saves lives. Period.

Official spokespersons for the agency say they do not retaliate. It would be good for them to recall an egregious incident in July of 2001. I received an urgent call from Border Patrol agents in charge of the migrant detention facilities in Nogales. Migrants were not being fed. Employees were sharing their food and emptying the vending machines. The Assistant Area Port Director had signed a memo saying the migrants didn't need to be fed every day.

Johnnie Williams was leading the then Western Division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I called Williams and gave him a few days to clean up the situation. A few days later, in Tucson, he approved a press release saying the water in Humane Border's water stations was so hot it was killing migrants. Whether provoked or embarrassed, he lashed out at me and my organization. That's retaliation.

Every newspaper and TV station in town headed out to water stations armed with thermometers and cameras. When the air temperature reached 114 degrees, the water had not even reached human body temperature. Trauma surgeons and research physicians at University Medical Center in Tucson said that day that migrants needed the water no matter how hot it got. The Border Patrol did not understand physics nor any relevant medical information. Water in jugs and barrels reach air temperature by dawn, and it heats up more slowly than air during the day. It can't get over 100 degrees. It's simple physics. Try it on your back porch.

The Center for Applied Spatial Analysis at the University of Arizona studied and proved that the presence of water in the desert is very statistically significant in reducing the numbers of migrant deaths which saves county funds in emergency rooms and morgues. Fourteen migrants died in one day at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge after the land managers refused Humane Borders a permit to install water stations in the exact area where the migrants had walked. The White House called the refuge and told them to get water out there. Unfortunately, we do not anticipate this president will tweet in favor of helping people to avoid death.

Claims made by public officials must be examined by journalists on behalf of the public. Support from editorial boards for those who save lives and save counties' dollars by keeping people alive must be renewed. The public must understand that humanitarian efforts are not only lawful but desirable. Federal attorneys need to exercise extreme prosecutorial discretion. Humanitarian groups, law enforcement, land managers, and policy makers all need to talk, otherwise, we end up in long, expensive, and politically damaging court cases. State lawmakers could make it unlawful to destroy water in the desert and provide very stiff penalties. It is, after all, like destroying a fire extinguisher or removing life vests from a boat.

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Retaliation by law enforcement is without merit, disgraceful, and totally unprofessional. Their first priority is to save lives. Maybe they need a lesson in physics and medicine: Thirsty? Here's water. Good law enforcement would report any damage to water locations or suspicious behavior in the area. It's not in the interest of the Border Patrol to have to pick up more dead bodies or prosecute good people.

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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Robin Hoover marks the 15th anniversary of the deployment of one of two blue barrels containing water, as part of an effort by Humane Borders to halt the number of deaths in southwestern Pima County, in 2016. The beat-up blue plastic water barrel became part of an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt design museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution.


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