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BP backs off 'visible surveillance' at No More Deaths aid site

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BP backs off 'visible surveillance' at No More Deaths aid site

Just before Christmas Eve, agents on horseback surrounded Arizona camp, telling volunteers they were seeking a search warrant

  • A Border Patrol agent at the No More Deaths camp in 2017.
    NMDA Border Patrol agent at the No More Deaths camp in 2017.

Border Patrol agents have stopped "visible surveillance" at No More Death's humanitarian aid station south of Tucson, days after agents surrounded the camp and told volunteers the agency was seeking a warrant to raid the property, the group said. 

On Wednesday—just before Christmas Eve—agents on horseback and backed by six to seven vehicles surrounded the aid station, and a supervisor said told volunteers they were pursuing a warrant to raid the property, said a No More Deaths worker. 

Had agents had raided the camp, it would have been the third incursion into the camp near Arivaca, Ariz. in the past five months, coming near the end of a spike in the number of remains found in southwestern Arizona—a likely sign that a larger number of people are attempting to cross illegally, and are dying in remote stretches of the desert.

No More Deaths said that Wednesday's actions "mirrored" two previous raids, including one in July and the second in October. During the previous raids, agents surrounded the camp and conducted surveillance, and within days they raided the camp, descending on the patch of private land with ATVs, dozens of trucks, and a Bearcat armored vehicle, while helicopters orbited overhead. 

On Thursday, Christmas Eve, officials with BP's parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that agents were "conducting routine law enforcement activities in the area," and that agents tracked a group of 11 people from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Byrd Camp. 

Agents said they observed three people, suspected of being in the country illegally, "attempt to flee the camp, but ran back when they saw agents nearby," said CBP spokesman John Mennell. 

Named for noted children's author Byrd Baylor — who owns 10 acres that include the camp — the encampment 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.

"Border Patrol’s consistent harassment, threats, and raids of this humanitarian aid space is meant to drive those in need of respite and care away from much needed humanitarian aid," said a No More Deaths volunteer. "These inhumane practices exemplify border and immigration enforcement and tactics." 

"People offered zero legal alternatives are funneled into dangerous terrain by U.S. Border Patrol's policies that are designed to kill and then face surveillance and terrorization while seeking to meet their basic needs," No More Deaths said. "This pattern is not new. Border Patrol’s targeting of humanitarian aid as a means of targeting migrants has been well documented." 

Activists with the group said that mounted border agents rode around the camp's edge on Wednesday night, telling the group that they intended to obtain a federal warrant to carry out another raid there.

Border Patrol's move comes during freezing temperatures in the desert surrounding Arivaca, and that Border Patrol’s policies "are directly responsible for the crisis, death, and disappearance of people in the borderlands," said NMD. 

This year, 214 different sets of remains have been found in Arizona, including 39 in the corridor that covers the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and dozens more in corridor that covers the Tohono O'odham Nation, according to a database run by Humane Borders and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

This represents a significant spike from 2019 when 144 cases were discovered, and is the highest number in 13 years since 2007 when 223 sets of remains were found in Southern Arizona. More than half of those sets of remains were eventually identified, but the remainder, largely skeletal remains, still do not have a name.

"Border Patrol’s continual harassment of Byrd Camp prevents patients from receiving essential care," No More Deaths said in a statement. "These raids are designed to drive migrants in need of lifesaving care away from the humanitarian aid station, making the desert even more deadly. The criminalization of migration and humanitarian aid has deadly consequences."

"No amount of reform can change an agency that continuously targets people seeking humanitarian aid with violent military-style force, especially on the eve of a holiday meant to celebrate hospitality towards travelers from distant lands," said Montana Thames, a No More Deaths volunteer. "These actions are simply a continuation of the violent practices Border Patrol uses to terrorize those crossing the desert daily. They must be defunded."

A spokeswoman with U.S. Attorney's Office said her agency would not comment on the move to request a warrant, and referred to CBP's public statement. 

Previous raids

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.

This was followed by a second raid in October. 

During that raid, 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.

Along long 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. 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.

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. 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.

During an interview in October with, Villareal defending the last raid, and said that that while his agency and No More Deaths have a "mutual mission," the agency will "enforce" U.S. immigration law. 

When he first came to the Tucson Sector as its chief, Villareal said he met with NMD leadership, and spoke to group about a "mutual mission, preventing the loss of life and providing aid" in the desert. "During that meeting,  I was very clear mission is border security and enforcing the law, as long as they remain within the scope of the law," Villareal said.

And, he disputed the idea that the relationship between NMD and Tucson Sector was deteriorating during his tenure. 

"The relationship isn’t deteriorating, but there is a clear line of enforcement where we’re going to take action," he said. Villareal also said that after the raids, he could not meet with the group because he was waiting for a "clear understanding" from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. "It's a unique situation," he said, because there was a potential for investigation for criminal prosecution.

It remains unclear what charges the agency sought, and why those charges were not filed against No More Deaths volunteers. 

"I'm not opposed to any organization that’s providing" humanitarian aid, but that group "has to a clear understanding that there are laws that we enforce, and they have to abide by the those laws," Villareal said.

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