Nearly two years ago, 14-year-old Josseline Janiletta Hernández Quinteros cross-ed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. She and her 10-year-old brother, both from El Salvador, joined a group led by a paid guide, known as a coyote, with hopes of meeting up with their mother, who lived in California. Along the way, Josseline fell ill and the group left her behind.
Her brother wanted to stay with her, but Josseline told him he needed to keep going. He needed to make it to see his mother, she told him. Josseline said she’d be all right—she was his big sister, after all.
Josseline died in the desert alone. Her body lay in a river basin for three months until Dan Millis, a volunteer with the humanitarian group No More Deaths, stumbled across it. Millis was hiking through the rough desert with three other volunteers leaving water for illegal immigrants.
“We were doing a regular supply job,” he said. The group, which searches for migrants in need of medical assistance, also leaves behind food, water and socks at designated locations along migrant trails. Two days after Millis found Josseline’s body, federal law enforcement officials ticketed him for littering after he left supplies behind on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We’re obviously not going to be deterred by these bogus littering tickets,” he said. “The biggest threat to human life out in the desert is lack of water, so we continue to put it out in the desert.”
Millis was tried and convicted, but not sentenced. The group is appealing the case. “We thought it was an anomaly,” Millis said.
But it wasn’t. On Dec. 4, 2008, another No More Deaths volunteer, Walt Staton, received an identical citation while on the refuge. A 12-member jury convicted Staton in June.
Defying Staton’s conviction, 13 humanitarians from No More Deaths, Tucson Samaritans and Humane Borders went out to the wildlife refuge to leave behind water jugs for migrants. All 13, including Jerome Zawada, a Franciscan priest, received tickets for littering.
The Tucson 13, Father Zawada said, told officials of their intention before arriving at the refuge. Federal officials were waiting for them when they arrived. “We put the water down and were walking away,” the Franciscan priest said. “They asked us if we were going to pick it up. We told them we weren’t. So they wrote us tickets and put the water jugs in the back of their trucks as evidence.”
The 13 were scheduled for court Nov. 11, but the trial has been postponed until 2010. In the meantime, the group has been meeting with officials from the wildlife refuge to work out where they can leave water.
The number of deaths this year, 206 according to some estimates, is a drastic increase from 183 in 2008—with Josseline among them. What makes the increase even more tragic, according to No More Deaths volunteers, is that the total number of migrants crossing has actually decreased because of the U.S. recession.
“Without any kind of actual legal path for people to come into the country—without any reform—it pushes people to more and more treacherous terrain,” said Jeffrey Boyce of No More Deaths.