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Border Patrol again raids Arizona border humanitarian camp, arrests 19

No More Deaths aid center near Arivaca targeted by federal agents

Border Patrol agents arrested 19 people at a No More Deaths camp near Arivaca, Ariz., on Monday evening as they served a search warrant on the humanitarian aid base, officials said.

Of the 19 people taken into custody, 12 were in the country without authorization, officials said on Twitter. However, their statements did not account for the remaining seven, who were No More Deaths volunteers. 

TucsonSentinel.com's requests for clarification sent to Border Patrol, as well as requests for comment by No More Deaths volunteers, were not answered Monday night. No information was released by anyone from the activist group until Tuesday afternoon, although it is generally quick to release public statements.

No More Deaths representatiaves described the incident as a "military-style" raid with a "massive show of armed force." Agents armed with assault rifles descended on the camp with ATVs, "dozens" of trucks, and a Bearcat armored vehicle, "chasing and detaining people who had sought out respite from the heat," No More Deaths said.

Agents held seven volunteers for nearly three hours, while 12 people "who were receiving medical care, food, water, and shelter from the 100+ degree heat" were detained by the agents, the aid group said Tuesday.

This was the second raid against the humanitarian camp south of Tucson, near the U.S.-Mexico border, this year, and along with the escalated actions, Border Patrol officials also amped up their rhetoric against the group, saying that the organization which has built a reputation for saving lives in Southern Arizona's deserts was "harboring" people. 

In a series of tweets, the chief of BP's Tucson Sector, Roy Villareal, announced that agents from Tucson Sector Border Patrol and Air and Marine Operations Tucson Air Branch executed a federal warrant at the 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. The camp is just a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and has been in operation since 2004. 

Villareal wrote that this was the second time that the "so-called Samaritan camp" had been raided over the past three months. In July, Border Patrol agents, including members of the agency's tactical team known as BORTAC, raided the No More Deaths camp, arresting more than three dozen people who were receiving medical care, food, water and shelter. 

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Meanwhile, No More Death's own Twitter account announced that agents entered the camp for a "potential raid" at 6:45 p.m. and said that updates would follow. No further posts were made Monday night or Tuesday morning.

Video from a cellphone shows several Border Patrol Chevy Tahoes drive toward the camp, joined by the armored Bearcat while a Blackhawk helicopter hovered overhead.

NMD said that agents "chased and terrorized those that were receiving care, all while the helicopter hovered low above them kicking up dust and debris, making it nearly impossible to see."

They also said that agents "smashed windows, broke doors, and destroyed essential camp infrastructure as well as supplies." Photographs from the group showed a portable shade structured toppled over.

The raid came after Border Patrol began surveilling the camp on Saturday, said Marissa Butler, a No More Deaths volunteer. This created an "antagonistic and distressing environment for those receiving care since late Saturday night," the group said.

In a statement, NMD said that Border Patrol has "refused on multiple occasions to meet with volunteers to discuss previous shared agreements that upheld the right to provide humanitarian aid." And, the group said that the sector chief, Villareal sent No More Deaths representatives "a formal letter asserting this refusal."

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a religious group which supports No More Deaths as an official ministry, called the raid "bullying and manipulative," and confirmed that among the 19 people taken into custody, seven were No More Deaths volunteers.

"We're deeply dismayed to learn of the October 5 raid on the No More Deaths Camp," said Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, UUSC president.

"Just a few short weeks away from a divisive presidential election, the arrest and detainment of 19 people at this camp should be called what it is: political posturing. This calculated and strategic move by the Trump administration appears opportunistic and reinforces a deeply flawed and fictitious narrative that migrants are 'invading' this nation," she said in as statement released Tuesday morning. "Our immigration and asylum systems should be designed to protect the human right to migrate and seek freedom."

Rhetoric heats up 

Villareal noted that the camp was "harboring illegal aliens with unknown health status," which was a "huge risk to themselves." He also added that in the Tucson Sector, 67 people taken into custody by agents this year were tested for COVID-19 and "over half tested positive." 

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However, the agency's own data shows that in August of 2020, agents encountered 6,744 people, including single adults, people traveling as families, and children traveling without parents or guardians. Overall, agents have encountered nearly 58,000 people from October 1, 2019 when the fiscal year started to August 2020, according to the most recent statistics. 

In an image shared online, men in camouflage jackets were shown being moved into a Border Patrol truck, and along with the image, Villareal wrote that "No More Deaths camp harboring illegal aliens with unknown health status. Huge risk to themselves, our communities, and our country." 

He also wrote that the men discovered at the No More Deaths camp were wearing camouflage. Smugglers have increasingly required the people they're smuggling to don camouflage clothes to make it more difficult for them to be spotted as they traverse the desert. In towns like Altar, Sonora, that are staging grounds for smugglers and migrants, such items, including backpacks, pants and carpeted-soled shoes to hide footprints, are widely available. 

On Twitter, Villareal linked the men to the "multiple sex offenders, multiple gang members" who have been apprehended this  year, "attempting to enter our country." 

"You don’t know who you’ll encounter," Villareal noted darkly, without offering details.

On Monday night, BP chief said that approximately 19 people were taken into custody, but No More Deaths said that 12 people were taken into custody by agents, while several volunteers were detained while agents searched the camp for other people.

While the agency regularly touts the successful apprehension of people who have been convicted of a crime in the United States—known by the agency as "criminal aliens"—CBP's own statistics show that they represent a small number of overall apprehensions. 

CBP statistics show that this year agents encountered 2,221 people convicted of a crime, and another 1,940 people who had outstanding warrants. Of those, the largest share, or 1,165, included people who were convicted of illegally re-entering the United States, and another 347 had been convicted of drug trafficking. 

July raid linked to BP union, sign of crumbling relationship between agency and volunteers

After the raid occurred in July, No More Deaths published images showing a line of vehicles heading into the camp, including an armored vehicle known as a Bearcat that carried members of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit. The elite unit known as BORTAC became notorious over the summer for its involvement in the federal government's response to protests in Portland, Ore. 

"For two hours, in darkness, they detained and chased people receiving care while a Border Patrol cameraman filmed the scene," said a volunteer with No More Deaths. "The day before, agents had entered the property without a warrant and detained one person receiving care. Border Patrol then set up 24-hour surveillance around the perimeter, deterring anyone else from entering the camp to seek help." 

A spokesman with the agency confirmed the summer raid, and said in a statement that agents from the Tucson Border Patrol Sector, with support from CBP Air and Marine Operation’s Tucson Air Branch "executed a federal search warrant on the No More Deaths camp near Arivaca, Arizona." Agents apprehended "over three dozen" people who were suspected of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, he said.

"When raiding our humanitarian aid camp last night Border Patrol had a warrant, but refused to show it upon entry," No More Deaths said of the July incident.  "The warrant specified the seizure of all cell phones and paperwork, in a clear attempt to suppress documentation of their actions."

The group called the July "military-style raid" at the aid station a "clear example of Border Patrol’s deadly pattern of interfering with humanitarian aid." 

"Many No More Deaths volunteers work as EMTs, paramedics, nurses, and doctors. Volunteers are trained to respect the autonomy of individuals receiving care — as is standard practice in the medical field, they only call 911 and Border Patrol with patient consent. All persons at camp had been medically evaluated, were stable, and were receiving continuous care," the group said of the summer incident.

The group complained in July that agents "entered our humanitarian aid camp near Arivaca AZ today without a warrant, detaining one person, in a clear prioritization of an enforcement-only strategy." In video posted to Twitter, a Border Patrol agent on an ATV drives past the camp's sign, a vehicle door that's painted green and has the hand-painted words "No Mas Muertes" and "Bienvenidos." Spanish for "No More Deaths" and "Welcome." 

No More Deaths volunteers said then that Border Patrol agents had "set up a checkpoint" on the public road just outside of the Byrd Camp and were "detaining and searching all vehicles leaving." 

In a statement about the July raid, a CBP spokesman said that Tucson Sector agents "detected a suspected group of illegal aliens moving north from the international border between Mexico and the United States. "Agents tracked the suspected illegal aliens into an area near Arivaca, Arizona," he said. "Border Patrol is currently conducting law enforcement operations in the area." 

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The group asked supports to call agency officials and "demand agents stand down and respect humanitarian aid."

"Once again, Border Patrol is concentrating their resources on interfering with humanitarian aid during the most deadly time of year for people crossing the border," Paige Corich-Kleim, one of the group’s volunteers, said in July. "People are dying in the desert because of border enforcement policy, and now Border Patrol wants to prevent people from accessing life-saving assistance. We view this is a clear violation of international humanitarian law."

The group also noted that they had to request agents put on masks, as a defense against the spread of COVID-19. 

This is despite a May statement from agency officials who said that, "CBP officers are required at this time to use agency-approved masks when performing job functions that entail an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. These job functions include encounters with the traveling public."

The Byrd Camp—named for noted children's author Byrd Baylor who owns 10 acres that include the camp—has been in operation since 2004 and operated for more than a decade under a tenuous detente between humanitarian volunteers and the Tucson Sector leadership. However, in 2017, this detente collapsed, and over the next three years, federal prosecutors pursued charges against nine No More Deaths volunteers. 

This includes the felony prosecution of No More Deaths volunteer Dr. Scott Warren, who was charged with two counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens. Last Spring, a jury said it was unable to reach a decision on the charges, resulting in a mistrial. The government withdrew the conspiracy charge, and tried to charge Warren with two counts of harboring, but in November, a second jury refused to convict him. 

A federal judge tossed out the convictions of four NMD volunteers in January, and in February prosecutors dropped a misdemeanor charge against Warren. 

No More Deaths volunteers linked the recent raid to the release of two documents linked to a similar raid just over three years ago, including an email that notes that the agency tactical unit, or BORTAC, was involved. The elite unit known as BORTAC has become notorious for its involvement in the federal government's response to protest in Portland, Oregon over the last two weeks. 

The day before the raid in July, NMD volunteers released documents that showed the National Border Patrol Council had complained about the group.

"This escalation comes only a day after NMD released documents revealing that the Border Patrol union (a pro-Trump anti-immigrant extremist org) provoked a June 2017 raid of our camp, calling in support from BORTAC, the agency’s special operations unit," volunteers wrote.

On June 15, 2017, Tucson Sector agents came onto the NMD camp with a warrant and arrested four Mexican men suspected of entering the country without authorization. After the raid, a spokesman defended the agency saying that the men were spotted with "surveillance technology" and were 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." 

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

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People arrested by Border Patrol during a raid at the No More Deaths humanitarian aid camp during a raid on Monday evening near Arivaca, Arizona, are loaded into a Border Patrol vehicle.

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