Claremont man who aided migrants convicted for littering

When Walt Emrys Staton stumbled upon a migrant mother, Concepcion, carrying her daughter Jessica, 9, along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, they’d been lost for days and had no food or water.

“The daughter was crying, `I’m sorry, mom, this is my fault,”‘ Staton said. “It’s heartbreaking to see that.”

Passion to help those in need, regardless of their immigration status, has enticed the Claremont School of Theology student to drop off jugs of water along the trails used by border crossers to enter the United States illegally.

But when he got arrested for littering last year, that same passion has also prompted him to refuse to pay a $175 fine and fight his case in a federal court.

“I wish they were after people who are dumping toxic waste with as much effort as they’ve been after me,” he said, citing that government has spent more than $50,000 to prosecute him.

“We drop off water (jugs) and pick up empty ones. When they arrested us, I had empty jugs in my hands, but they wrote us all littering tickets.”

After a two-day trial, a federal jury in June convicted Staton of littering in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

In a sentencing memorandum, Lawrence Lee, an assistant U.S. attorney, claimed that there is a tremendous negative environmental impact in leaving full plastic water jugs on the refuge, which is responsible for the preservation of several critically endangered species.

Refuge Officer James Casey said he has seen thousands of plastic water jugs on the refuge with markings which Staton’s organization uses – with dates that are over a year old.

The prosecutor also said Staton’s actions were not about humanitarian efforts, but about “protesting the immigration policies of the United States, and aiding those that enter illegally into the United States.”

Blake Baron, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, said not everyone who benefits from Staton’s actions are just trying to find a better life in the United States. Many of them are drug smugglers, and “approximately 16 percent of illegal aliens arrested have significant criminal histories, to include murder, assault, rape, and sexual offenses with minors,” he said.

But Staton sees things differently.

The master’s of divinity student at CST is also a member of the group No More Deaths, which supports humanitarian aid along the border. Upon getting his degree in geography from Arizona State University, he “wanted to do something good for the world.”

He learned that he didn’t have to go far from his home in Tucson, Arizona, to do it.

“It’s a crisis. Hundreds of people are dying 30 miles from where I lived,” Staton said.

All volunteers with the group are “medically trained wilderness first-responders.”

“If we find anyone in distress, we do whatever we need to help them out,” he said. “Leading cause of death is dehydration, so leaving water makes (the) most sense.”

Volunteers scour established routes, dropping off full water jugs at several locations and picking up empty ones. Besides medical aid and water, they also provide clean socks or help with reading maps.

“Our border policy is intentionally funneling people into the desert,” Staton said. “The government uses it as a deterrent. More than 5,000 people have died since they’ve built the border wall. You see moms with kids and babies in the middle of the desert. No way that families need to go through that experience.”

CST is standing behind Staton and respects his conviction that saving human life must sometimes trump following all the rules, said Jerry D. Campbell, the school’s president.

“The moral progress that civilization makes over time results, in part, from the ongoing clash of ideas,” he said. “Staton’s action, intended to save the lives of individuals entering the country through the desert, conflicts with the position of those who are more concerned with keeping people from entering the country if they have not taken the prescribed legal steps necessary to do so. As a culture, we clearly have not yet solved the problem of how to deal humanely and justly with immigration.”

Jose Zapata Calderon, a professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College, agreed.

“With the building of the wall and placing more Border Patrol in places like Tijuana and El Paso, a lot of immigrants have turned to crossing the border through Arizona, and what has emerged is a very strong anti-immigrant sentiment, not only aimed at immigrants but also at individuals who support immigrants,” Calderon said.

“All he was doing is what a number of churches also do, working to save the lives of individuals who often get lost.”

At the sentencing hearing in August, Magistrate Jennifer C. Guerin ordered Staton to pick up trash for 300 hours. She also sentenced him to a year of unsupervised probation and banned him from the refuge for a year.

Staton filed a motion to suspend his sentence, but the judge denied it and threatened to give him 25 days in prison if he does not comply with the ruling.

“I had strong objections to doing community service because I felt my actions were humanitarian,” he said. “I hoped the court would reconsider punishing me. But she just gave me two weeks to think about it.”

During a probation violation hearing held in Tucson on Monday, Staton changed his mind and asked the judge to let him do the initial 300 hours of community service. She agreed and also allowed him to complete the hours in Claremont.

“I still hold firm that what I did was not wrong,” Staton said. “I don’t want other people to be deterred from this kind of work, but me sitting in prison is not useful either.”

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