No More Deaths was founded in 2004 as a coalition of existing organizations with the objective of expanding upon ongoing humanitarian efforts by aggressively asserting and extending the right to provide humanitarian aid in the Arizona borderlands. Although organizations like Humane Borders and the Samaritans were well-established and had been providing aid in the borderlands for years, the number of migrant deaths occurring in southern Arizona continued to rise. Perceiving the need for an expanded humanitarian presence on the border, a group of community and faith leaders assembled a coalition under the banner of No More Deaths and presented its model of operation and principles for immigration reform at the Multi-Faith Border Conference in March of 2004. Throughout the summer of 2004, No More Deaths maintained volunteer-staffed desert camps called “Arks of the Covenant” in order to ensure a permanent humanitarian presence during the hottest, most dangerous months of the year.
In July 2005, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by Border Patrol while evacuating three medically compromised individuals from the desert to a hospital in Tucson and were later indicted on felony charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting. In response, No More Deaths launched a support campaign called “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime,” prompting an overwhelming international response and eventually resulting in the dismissal of the charges against volunteers Shanti Shellz and Daniel Strauss. Following the arrests, the coalition that had originally formed No More Deaths began to dissolve and No More Deaths separated as an independent organization, eventually becoming a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson in 2008.
In 2006, No More Deaths began to provide humanitarian aid to recently deported individuals in Mexico, collaborating with organizations in Sonora to establish and staff a migrant aid station in Nogales and eventually broadening partnerships to support humanitarian work in Naco and Agua Prieta, Sonora, as well. It was during the course of this work that volunteers first began to document reports of abuse and mistreatment of detainees in Border Patrol custody, culminating in the publication of Crossing the Line in 2008 and A Culture of Cruelty in 2011. Following the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, No More Deaths collaborated with Tierra Y Libertad Organization to launch the We Reject Racism campaign with the goals of increasing visible resistance to the law and building a network of people committed to non-compliance. Today, No More Deaths continues to pursue new points of intervention to act in solidarity with those targeted by racism and state violence while carrying on the important work of providing humanitarian aid and defending human rights on both sides of the border.
In recent years, a variety of factors has led to a decrease in Border Patrol apprehensions, and by 2011 the number of people apprehended had fallen to 327,577, the lowest number since 1971. At the same time, U.S. authorities continue to pursue a policy of aggressive and deadly enforcement through massive militarization of the southwest borderlands. Under the Obama administration, 1,200 National Guard troops were deployed to the border to assist in enforcement operations and Border Patrol has grown to employ nearly 21,500 agents. This continued expansion of enforcement has had horrific but predictable consequences: even as annual apprehensions drop, the number of recorded migrant deaths has remained constant or grown from year to year. The border is now more deadly than at any point in history.
In the interior of the country, the expansion of the Secure Communities program and a recent surge of anti-immigrant legislation at the state level has extended the reach of enforcement and resulted in further criminalization of immigrant communities. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deported people at a record pace – nearly 400,000 people every year – separating hundreds of thousands from their families and undermining communities across the nation. Consequently, those individuals attempting to cross the border without authorization today, in addition to being economic refugees and those fleeing the violent consequences of the drug war, are often long-term U.S. residents displaced from their homes by U.S. immigration authorities.
The work of humanitarian aid organizations like No More Deaths is more important now than ever. U.S. immigration authorities have turned what was once described as a “humanitarian crisis” into a human disaster of nearly inconceivable scope. Providing humanitarian aid to help address the immediate needs of individuals in crisis in the desert or after being deported is critical to help mitigate the consequences of state violence along the border. Documenting the systemic brutality of Border Patrol challenges the legitimacy of the agency and the deadly policies it enacts. In the interior, efforts to fight back against racism and the resulting policies that detain and deport thousands each year is a vital response to the current climate of criminalization and expanded enforcement.