PHOENIX (AP) — Border Patrol agents swept into a medical camp in the Arizona desert to capture four immigrants, an operation that volunteers on Friday called a "staged military siege" as the U.S. government has vowed a crackdown along the border with Mexico.
As a helicopter circled overhead, 15 trucks and about 30 agents, some armed with long rifles, swarmed into the camp run by No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, the organization said. The group provides refuge and water for migrants, said Catherine Gaffney, a longtime volunteer who was present during the arrests.
"The type of operation they are doing, for me, is unprecedented and there's nothing routine about what they did. It wasn't part of their day-to-day operation. It was a staged military siege on our camp," Gaffney said.
Gaffney said a camp doctor asked the agency late Thursday morning for more time to treat the men, who had suffered from heat-related illnesses and needed an additional 24 hours of supervised care.
The Border Patrol said talks between agents and camp representatives on gaining access to question the men about their citizenship and legal status failed. The agency said in a news release Friday evening that it had no recourse but to obtain a search warrant.
Authorities said they had been monitoring the men since Tuesday, when they walked into the camp after spending several days in the desert in the scorching heat. Agents then stationed themselves outside, where they remained for the next two days, Gaffney said.
The enforcement action comes as President Donald Trump has made securing the border a top priority of his administration, including a signature campaign promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
His presidency has coincided with a big drop off in immigrants crossing the border from Mexico, but immigration authorities have been arresting more people in the country illegally, and doing so in places where they had previously avoided, like courthouses.
Gaffney said volunteers were escorted to a different part of the camp as a helicopter circled overhead and the agents arrested the four men, all Mexican nationals. Gaffney said the men were between the ages of 19 and 40.
"They didn't need 30 agents to apprehend four sick people," Gaffney said, adding that the agency's public relations team filmed the encounter.
The Border Patrol says agents assessed the men on scene and found they were in good health but took them to a local hospital as a precautionary measure. It says one of the men, identified as Lucindo Diaz-Hernandez, was a convicted drug felon and had previously been deported.
The agency's Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona, says it has launched a campaign to warn migrants about the dangers of crossing the border in the summer. The sector has 34 strategically-placed rescue beacons that migrants can activate for rescue. Over 200 agents in the Tucson Sector are emergency medical technicians and about 25 are paramedics, the agency said.
Agents in that area conducted over 1,400 rescues and reported 84 deaths last fiscal year, according to agency statistics. So far this year through April, agents in the Tucson Sector have rescued 160 people and reported 14 deaths.
"Our primary mission is to conduct law enforcement operations along the border and in the course of our duties we're often the first responders to emergency situations," Border Patrol spokesman Vicente Paco said. "We are one the largest agencies that have resources in the desert where we respond."
Paco said that the agency understands the mission of No More Deaths but doesn't condone its actions because it encourages illegal immigration.
Alicia Dinsmore, a No More Deaths spokeswoman, said the aid camp is composed of medically-trained volunteers who have first-responder certification and provide care, food and water. The group has been providing aid for 13 years and has a verbal agreement with the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector to operate there. The camp is open most of the year.
Seven volunteers were at the camp Thursday when agents arrested the four people.
"This incident was a targeted attack on humanitarian aid," Dinsmore said.
She said agents have arrested migrants who received aid several times in the past but that the large-scale operation on Thursday was unprecedented. The group was most troubled by the fact that agents apparently had tracked the migrants for 18 or so miles (29 or so kilometers) but waited until they were at the camp to make arrests, Dinsmore said.
The Border Patrol said a similar incident occurred a month ago and that negotiations resulted in the surrender of eight people who were taken into custody. Those included two individuals with "prior significant criminal records in the United States" and two needing medical care at a hospital, the agency said.
"We do believe in saving lives and we have multiple resources such as the rescue beacon towers," Paco said. "Regardless of their immigration status, we render aid."
Dinsmore said the group has noticed more surveillance from agents since the new administration took over.
Gaffney, the volunteer, said the camp would carry on with normal operations.
"We're not able to stop our work and we're not gonna let the government create a trap for people seeking help. I think that's what Border Patrol's intention is, to deter people from seeking help when they need it and to entrap anybody who does," Gaffney said.