USA

US Border Patrol raids humanitarian aid camp, seizing phones and arresting migrants

Volunteers at Byrd Camp near Arivaca, Arizona managed to capture just a few images of the July 31, 2020 Border Patrol raid before agents seized their cellphones.
Volunteers at Byrd Camp near Arivaca, Arizona managed to capture just a few images of the July 31, 2020 Border Patrol raid before agents seized their cellphones.

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At sunset on the evening of July 31, agents from the US Border Patrol and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) raided a humanitarian aid station known as Byrd Camp near Arivaca, Arizona. Forces arrived with an armoured vehicle, two helicopters, and an estimated 24 other vehicles. More than 30 migrants were arrested, and many of the aid workers were detained. Agents arrived with a warrant to confiscate cellphones on the property, preventing most volunteers from documenting the raid.

Border Patrol agents had first entered the camp around 9am the morning of Thursday July 30 and detained one migrant receiving care. After the arrest, agents set up 24-hour surveillance around the camp’s property, with at least a dozen agents monitoring the camp at all times, aid workers said.

Byrd Camp offers medical treatment, water, and other resources to migrants crossing into the US illegally from Mexico. The region is known as one of the most dangerous desert passages along the 3,145-km border. In a statement, No More Deaths, a faith-based NGO that operates Byrd Camp, called the raid on their aid station a “military-style assault". BORTAC, known as the “SWAT team” of Border Patrol, is the same force that has recently been deployed in US cities like Portland to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests.

These are a few images volunteers managed to take of the raid before their phones were confiscated by Border Patrol agents.

“They confiscated all the cellphones they could find”

Hannah Taleb, a volunteer with No More Deaths, recounted the raid to the Observers team.

From all accounts it was a really hectic scene because they basically busted in with guns drawn. And they chased and terrorised and detained all of those people that were receiving care. 

There were two helicopters circling overhead. They arrived with military vehicles. They brought a cameraman. Their uniforms had BORTAC insignia on them. And they had guns drawn. When volunteers approached asking to see a warrant for entry, they were detained and their cellphones were all taken. We only have a little bit of video footage and camera photos from the incident because of that.

They searched the entire camp, and in doing so trashed it. They slashed tents. They destroyed medical supplies. They unhooked the power supply to our well. And we have built so much of our platform on why water is a right for people who are crossing.

They confiscated all the cellphones they could find, including the Red Cross phone that we have for people to make calls to their families and loved ones. They took them all: No More Death's phones, volunteers' phones, the Red Cross phone, and phones from those receiving care.

 

Images of destruction in the camp after the raid. Volunteers say the Border Patrol agents cut the power to the camp's well and destroyed medical supplies.

 

Especially with the current climate, they wanted to make sure that what they did was not documented in that moment. They were able to place those cellphones on the warrant, so they have some sort of legal backing for what they did. I think being able to have real-time, or close to live, video of what happened, would have looked really bad for them.

Border Patrol officials Aug. 4 told the group their cellphones would be held for at least a month, according to Taleb.

Although Border Patrol agents brought a cameraman, they had not released any images of the raid as of Aug. 5. Tucson sector Border Patrol Chief Roy Villareal published a brief statement on Twitter, writing that agents “executed a federal search warrant on the No More Deaths camp near Arivaca. Upon entry, over three dozen illegal border crossers were found in the camp". 

In an earlier thread of tweets, Villareal wrote that agents had tracked a group of migrants in the desert “through remote mountains for two days” southeast of Arivaca. According to Villareal, Border Patrol EMT evaluated and detained a migrant “outside the perimeter of the camp” on July 30 and sent the migrant to a nearby hospital for treatment. 

A copy of the warrant listing items to be seized, including "cellular phones" and "illegal aliens." 

Representatives from No More Deaths dispute this account, saying the July 30 arrest occurred within the camp boundaries.

 

We know anecdotally and from the release of documents that when Border Patrol tracks people for as long as they say, they are trying to exhaust them [a tactic known as ‘chase and scatter’]. It's to make them not try to access resources, especially in this heat. I think it's really disgusting that their rationale for why they were surveilling and threatening to enter our camp was because they were tracking this group.

 

This video is one of the few recorded of the raid. Volunteers' cellphones were seized by Border Patrol and BORTAC agents.

A pattern of retaliation

Friday’s raid is similar to one that occurred at Byrd camp on June 15, 2017. On July 29, No More Deaths released documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that disclosed the involvement of BORTAC and the Border Patrol Union in the 2017 raid, Taleb said.

 

No More Deaths does have a really long history with raids unfortunately at this point. 

A few days before the [July 31] raid, we released some FOIA-ed emails that showed that BORTAC was also involved with [the 2017] raid. I think that the move to confiscate cellphones was because of the media that we were able to do around the 2017 raid.

In 2017, volunteers from No More Deaths were able to post photos on social media as the raid was happening. They attached the phone number for US Customs and Border Protection in Arizona and a script for callers, asking people to call and demand that the surveillance end. Without cellphones, volunteers were unable to do so this time. 

The second, and currently only other, set of photos that a volunteer managed to take on July 31.

"Border Patrol has always worked hardest to suppress the narratives of those directly affected by the crisis they have created. We are simply an extension of that."

After the raid, the three dozen arrested migrants were loaded onto buses and taken to holding cells. The volunteers were released. The dangers for the arrested migrants are high, Taleb explains. 

 

They detained and arrested over 30 people that night. They probably chose not to arrest our volunteers because they wouldn't get as much bad media for harming the lives of people migrating as they would for harming humanitarian aid workers. And they know that.

Immigration detention is a really deadly intervention in somebody's life. We know that Covid-19 is rampant in immigrant detention. We also know that there are many, many people that are being rapidly deported at this moment.

The M.O. of Border Patrol in the field every single day is violent. We saw kind of a microcosm of their tactics, just maybe with more guns and also with the Border Patrol cameraman on the scene standing on top of trucks and getting shots of people while they're getting pulled out.

Border Patrol has always worked hardest to suppress the narratives of those directly affected by the crisis they have created. We are simply an extension of that.

The people that have to bear the brunt of all of their actions against our organisation are the folks that are migrating.

People have been telling stories since the beginning of prevention through deterrence. It’s those narratives that tell the actual true story. It feels important to highlight this false reality that [Border Patrol agents] are rescuers in the desert, when they also create the crisis that causes people to die.

Article by Sophie Stuber