I recently saw the video below featuring the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, under the title “Is Giving Water to Migrants a Crime?” However, an alternative title could have been “Is Destroying Water Left for Migrants a Crime?” In the video, we see U.S. Border Agents in southern Arizona destroying water left by volunteers for migrants crossing via Mexico. We also learn that one of the group’s volunteers was arrested for “harboring two undocumented immigrants and giving them food, water and clean clothes.”
The area is home to the Sonoran Desert and is notorious for migrants dying from the heat and dehydration, from hypothermia (in winter), and from injuries and getting lost during the exhausting journey. Between 1999 and 2013, an estimated 2,400 people died in the area, according to the organization Human Borders. Certainly, more have died since. According to Betzi Younglas, a volunteer with the organization, “When the US began walling off the border cities and erecting a barrier right across Texas, they thought the danger of coming through here would deter the migrants. But they underestimated their desperation.”
Therefore, groups like “No More Deaths” are literally saving lives. Leaving aside the nuances of the debates about undocumented immigration, most (reasonable) people would agree that crossing an international border without proper paperwork should not be a death sentence (though here is an unreasonable example).
It occurred to me that border agents who damage food and water supplies left for migrants is something that would not be tolerated in war time. In 2016, referring to the war in Syria, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon bluntly stated “Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime.” Of course, this applies to the deliberate deprivation of drinking water as well. According to Leslie Alan Horvitz and Christopher Catherwood’s book “The Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide” (2014: 406-7):
“As a tool of war, starvation is prohibited under INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW. The ADDITIONAL PROTOCOLS TO THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS ban the starvation of civilian populations in both international and internal conflicts….
…Further limits on using starvation as a means of warfare are found in Additional Protocol I, covering international armed conflict, which prohibits the targeting or destruction of “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” a provision applying to food and to the means of producing food—for example, a flour plant, reservoir, or farm. A belligerent is enjoined by the protocol from taking any action which may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause starvation or force its movement.” (p. 406-7)
Basically, I’m not sure why actions that would would be intolerable in a time of war should be tolerated in a time of peace. A representative for No More Deaths stated that “when border patrol agents are destroying water gallons, we think that that’s a lethal act. I would almost equate it to murder.”
I am not a lawyer, and cannot comment on the legality of such actions. However, scholars who study the evolution of human ethics (primatologists, anthropologists, philosophers) may have something important to say here. It’s very likely that those Border Agents did not consider their actions equivalent to murder, even though they certainly increased the chances of causing severe harm to migrants passing through the area. In their eyes, they likely justified their actions to themselves as deterring illegal immigration. I can imagine that some of them may have viewed it as a form punishment, albeit probably not a lethal form.
Some philosophers like Peter Singer have noted that we likely evolved an aversion to active harms, where our actions caused suffering to others. Passive harms, where our own inaction may have caused suffering, would not have provoked as deep of an emotional response. Essentially, this can be reduced to something like “to kill” versus “to let die.” In our evolutionary past, most lethal harms would have been active, personal, up close, emotional, and nasty. Killing from afar through projectile weapons, drones, and pushing buttons would never have been an option (since those options did not exist).
This circles back to Border Agents destroying water and supplies. One could argue that these are not “direct harms,” since the migrants are not immediately present at the time, and it’s possible that such actions may not lead unambiguously to death. Perhaps they might slow them down for a while and lead to their detainment. And if any migrants did perish as a result of dehydration, a border agent might somehow justify this to themselves by acting as if one could never know what the “true cause” of death was, since multiple factors might be involved. On the other hand, the philosopher Will Cartwright argued that “one kills someone if one initiates a causal sequence that ends in his death, whereas one lets him die if one allows an already causal sequence to culminate in his death, when one could have prevented this upshot.”
Destroying water left by others is initiating a causal sequence. The video did state that Customs and Borders condemned their agents for destroying water jugs, but I wonder what the official policy is on such actions. Elsewhere, another Border Patrol representative said that “We want to be able to identify that agent and hold them accountable for those actions. The Border Patrol does not condone or support those actions. I tell you what, I’d hate to be that agent if he’s caught doing those things.” So it seems that there is some official recognition that destroying water supplies left for migrants is inhumane. Still, another (larger) causal sequence seems to be funneling migration patterns through the Sonoran Desert in the first place.
Cartwright W. 1996. Killing and letting die: a defensible distinction. British Medical Bulletin. 52(2):354-61. Link
Horvitz, L. A., & Catherwood, C. (2014). Encyclopedia of war crimes and genocide. Infobase Publishing. Link