Quenching Thirst in the Desert: An Interview With Dan Millis E-mail
Thursday, 04 June 2009 12:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Interview

Preparing Water Bottles for Migrants photo courtesy of Dan MillisTo many, immigrant rights and ecological issues seem worlds apart. Others see a strong connection between the two, none more so than Dan Millis, a volunteer with No More Deaths • No Más Muertes (NMD). Along the Arizona-Mexican border, NMD workers administer first aid, food, water and clothing at desert humanitarian stations to ease the suffering of migrants as they attempt the desert trek north, or are deported back to the south. In the first year and a half of operation, one station in Nogales aided more than 200,000 people who were dumped off by US Homeland Security and forced to walk across the border to Mexico.

In February of 2008, Dan—who was born and raised in Arizona, studied Hispanic issues, and spent time living in Chile—was leaving gallon-jugs of water along a migrant trail in the southern Arizona desert when he was spotted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and given a $175 fine for littering, despite the boxes full of trash he and fellow volunteers had picked up. Just two days earlier, he found the body of a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador along a trail who died of exposure on her way to reunite with her family. Though Millis was excused from paying the fine or serving jail time, he was given a guilty sentence. He fought the conviction on the grounds that humanitarian aid is not a crime.

EcoHearth: What motivated you to volunteer with No More Deaths?

Dan Millis: I got involved when I was a high-school Spanish teacher and was looking for a social-justice issue to involve the students and to do environmental service projects.

I think it’s important for people to make the connection between social justice and environmental restoration, as the two are inextricably linked. Valuing human lives expands the sphere of caring for our planet because we’re not really separate from nature. Currently, I work with the Sierra Club Borderlands campaign as a team organizer.

EH: Where does your conviction for littering stand?

DM: We’ve appealed to the US District Court and it was upheld. Now we are appealing to the 9th Circuit Court and we’ll see if they hear the case.

EH: Which activities on the US-Mexican border impose the most significant damage to the desert ecosystem?

Mule Deer Stopped by US Border Fence near the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area photo courtesy of Dan MillisDM: That’s easy—the border wall. We now have nearly 370 miles of border wall and another 300 miles of vehicle barriers strewn across our fragile desert ecosystems. This ridiculous project has been undertaken in direct violation of 36 federal protection laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The wall itself has stranded migratory wildlife, destroyed and fragmented habitat, caused significant erosion and sedimentation problems, and has resulted in disastrous floods. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security has installed high-voltage lighting that disturbs nocturnal animals, plowed access roads through pristine desert, and torn across roadless areas in off-road vehicles. We don’t know what the costs will be of this project to endangered species and their habitats, but we do know that construction of the wall itself has already cost taxpayers at least $2.4 billion and could end up costing as much as $49 billion as it is tunneled under, climbed over and cut over the next 25 years. Walls and enforcement-only policies like these don’t stop migration, but rather push it out farther into the more remote desert areas, where hundreds of migrants die each year.

EH: For those of us who live far from our southern border, describe what is it like on the frontlines of humanitarian aid for migrants from the south.

DM: I can’t tell you how horrible it is to see droves of exhausted, dehydrated people of all ages wandering in the heat. Whether lost or tired along a migrant trail in southern Arizona, or disoriented and abused after deportation to northern Mexico, it’s horrible to see people victimized by our insane trade and border policies.

EH: What are the main reasons people leave their homes in the south to come to the US?

DM: Each person has her or his own reasons, but most people I talk to feel they really have no choice. Either stay home and continue to endure impossible conditions, or chance it and head north to improve their lot and salir adelante (move ahead). Many people are not only fleeing poverty, but have specific needs like reuniting with family members on the US side, or earning enough money to pay for a loved one’s surgery, for example.

EH: There are people who are vehemently opposed to immigration from Latin America.  Do they also have a physical presence where you are giving humanitarian aid? If so, do they pose a threat to your work?

Preparing Water Bottles for Migrants photo courtesy of Dan MillisDM: If you’re talking about the so-called Minutemen, I’ve never seen one while working on the Arizona border. They’re more hype than help. I have seen one vigilante-type man on a quad once, who said he was looking for “wetbacks and drugs.” You see racist counter-protesters at immigrants’-rights marches, but in the desert, where there are no cameras, there aren’t many vigilantes either. There are, however, vandals who destroy our humanitarian aid supplies left on migrant trails. The most common form of vandalism of water is stabbing. Vandals will take the time and effort to individually stab each water jug or water bottle, usually multiple times. These guys need some serious anger-management classes.

EH: Are you also seeing climate refugees?

DM: I don’t know. Many campesinos (country folk) and indigenous people come through the desert after losing access to their land. I blame NAFTA more than climate change, but it might be a factor as well.

Border walls and increased border militarization were really stepped up in the mid 1990s, right around the same time as the passage of NAFTA. This is not sheer coincidence. If trade is allowed to flow freely across borders, labor will naturally follow suit. Border-enforcement initiatives like Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper were launched in the mid 1990s as an attempt to block this inevitable flow of migrant workers. NAFTA has resulted in the privatization of communal farmlands, dumping of cheap and subsidized US corn on Mexican markets, and the expansion of free-trade zones along the border. As poverty in the countryside increased, the border region grew more crowded, polluted and poor. Instead of addressing the root causes of this problem, the US response was to wall it off.

EH: No More Deaths has documented abuses by the US Border Patrol while migrants are in custody (up to 72 hours), including the denial of water, food and medical treatment. Has your campaign to implement humane and sanitary processing-center conditions, and humane repatriation and deportation processes, received any attention from Arizona’s Congressional representatives?

DM: Now that we’ve put out a report documenting abuses of migrants in short-term Border Patrol custody, we’re launching a new custody-standards campaign based on that. We hope that by exposing these injustices in a verifiable and methodical way, we can seek real change that allows for independent oversight and enforcement of humane custody standards.

[Breaking News: Another NMD volunteer, Walt Staton, was convicted of "knowingly littering garbage or other debris" after leaving humanitarian aid for undocumented migrants in the Arizona desert. Read the Arizona Daily article and the NMD press release.- Ed.]

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[If you know someone who is deserving of an Eco Hero profile on EcoHearth.com, please contact us. – Ed.]

Comments (2)add
Written by Jay , June 07, 2009
Dan shows that love of earth and the human family are morally inseperable.
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Written by Jillian , June 05, 2009
Thanks for factually sharing this important story. Dan and all others seeking to ease the plight of migrants should be commended, not cited and prosecuted. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the government channeled this time and resources towards the problems that cause people to illegally migrate rather than to apprehend and prosecute humanitarians seeking to stop deaths along the border? This country used to look up to those who provided aid without question, and it’s time we did so again – while working to get rid of the root problem.
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