TUCSON, Ariz. – A member of a southern Arizona Indian tribe who has been putting out water for illegal immigrants crossing the desert for about seven years said Thursday that he has again been told to stop.
Mike Wilson has ignored an admonition to stop the practice since 2002 and has been operating four stations on one part of the Tohono O'odham Nation for several years and two others just south of the Mexican border, all in cooperation with the humanitarian organization Humane Borders.
The water is set out in 55-gallon drums along routes heavily used by illegal immigrants to try to cut the number of heat-related desert deaths.
"The [Tohono O'odham] nation has been adamant in not cooperating with any person or groups in the social justice community in trying to mitigate the deaths on tribal lands," said Wilson, 59, a resource manager for a charter high school in Tucson.
Calls to Tohono O'odham tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr., Baboquivari District Chairwoman Veronica Harvey and tribal spokesmen were not returned immediately Thursday.
The Tohono O'odham reservation sits on one of the busiest smuggling routes in southern Arizona and has registered a disproportionate number of illegal immigrant deaths in the state. Arizona has been the focal point for illegal immigrant trafficking from Mexico for most of the past decade.
The Border Patrol says the agency doesn't break out migrant deaths on the reservation, but has documented 154 fatalities since Oct. 1 across the agency's Tucson sector, which includes most of the Arizona-Mexico border. That's a 21 percent decrease from the same period a year earlier.
The Arizona Daily Star, which has tracked border deaths for years, said the bodies of 70 illegal immigrants were recovered on the reservation in 2007. Eighty-three were recovered between Jan. 1 and mid-June this year, according to the newspaper.
In June 2002, the reservation's Baboquivari District Council passed a resolution prohibiting Wilson from putting out water in the district. The council resolution said illegal immigrants and smugglers were breaking immigration laws, threatening tribal members for food and rides, breaking into homes, littering, cutting fences and trading drugs to tribal members for information.
Wilson said he's been threatened with banishment by the tribe's public safety director and attorney general's office if he doesn't stop putting water out for migrants. However, tribal officials have largely left a water placement ban to each of the tribe's 11 districts.
On Saturday, a police officer told him to take down a water station he has nicknamed St. Matthew, Wilson said. "I told her I would respectfully decline the instructions to take down the water station," he said.
Wilson said he felt a responsibility as a human being, a Tohono O'odham member and a pastor to do something.