The crackdown by the Trump administration on immigration activists has now hit a faith-based humanitarian group that offers shelter and aid to undocumented migrants on the Mexican border. Nine members No More Deaths, a humanitarian group, were charged in recent months with federal crimes and misdemeanors. One volunteer was arrested last month just after a report was published that documented many alleged abuses by the US Border Patrol.
In December, the humanitarian group, based in Tucson, released a report that described evidence of the systematic destruction of water jugs left for migrants in the desert by the Border Patrol. The report also noted months if higher surveillance and harassment by the Border Patrol starting last year. Just after the report was published, the group’s organizer was put under arrest in Arizona, as well as two illegal immigrants. The organizer was hit with felony charges.
The complaint filed last month in US district court stated that Border Patrol agents did surveillance in the small town of Ajo. They observed Scott Warren, 35, and two illegal immigrants going into a building on the same day the group’s report was published. The migrants allegedly learned of the building’s address and that it would provide them with sanctuary.
Warren met them near the building and provided them with food and water for three days, according to the federal complaint. The complaint also accused the Arizona State University instructor of giving the illegal migrants beds and clean clothes. With assistance from the Pima County sheriff’s department, the Border Patrol knocked on the door of the building and discovered Warren and the migrants inside. The US government now is relying on information from the migrants as material witnesses in its federal case against Warren; he has been charged with harboring and bringing in undocumented immigrants.
For Warren, this is his second problem with federal law enforcement since mid 2017, when he was cited by an official from the Department of the Interior in a national wildlife refuge for illegally using a motor vehicle in a federal wildlife area and also for littering on a federal property.
Similar charges – which are misdemeanors that carry up to a six month sentence – have been used on eight other volunteers for No More Deaths summer volunteers. Most of them are from outside Arizona. US marshals started to serve the federal summonses last month. That is when many volunteers returned home to cities across the US. The defendants had their first court hearing in December, and five of the defendants from out of state attended the hearing by video.
Legally, the Warren arrest and the summonses he and the other volunteers got are separate cases, but that does not mean they have nothing to do with each other, according to No More Deaths. The group contends it has a long time practice of leaving water jugs for migrants who are making their way through some of the most dangerous and remote terrain. But the Trump administration is targeting illegal immigration advocates with federal prosecutions to make their work more difficult.
The attorney for the group, William G. Walker, contends that the arrests are certainly related. Walker has worked with the group for more than 10 years and is giving legal counsel to the defendants. He stated in federal court last month that No More Deaths has had a cooperative relationship with the US attorney’s office and the Border Patrol for years. The activities the defendants have been accused of taking part in are the same that the group has been engaged in for several years. Walker stated that the Border Patrol and US attorney knew about what the group was doing for years and has allowed it to go on, but now everything has changed.
The Border Patrol will not comment on the recent federal charges and defers to the US attorney’s office. But a spokesperson for the US Customs and Border Protection did state in late 2017 that Warren’s arrest was not retaliation, and the agency is enforcing immigration laws, which included the arrests in these case due to increased illegal immigration in that area.
The US government has had more of a hands off approach in the last few years regarding these groups helping migrants. But the group has dealt with these types of arrests in the past. In 2005, group volunteers were put under federal arrest by Border Patrol agents as they tried to transport three illegal immigrants to a local hospital. The volunteers were in their early 20s and faced 15 years in federal prison. A judge tossed out the charges, ruling that the volunteers were following protocols they had been told were legal. Five years after that, a federal circuit court of appeals overturned a federal conviction for littering for one of the defendants, for leaving jugs of water for migrants in a national wildlife refuge.
Walker represented both of the defendants. After the ruling above in 2010, Walker says his client’s prosecution was due to a decision by the Department of Justice under President Bush to shut down these groups helping migrants. Eight years after that, Walker suggested political prosecutions have returned in a big way under President Trump. He attributes the shift to the US government being of the mind that they want to lock up humanitarian groups more than they want to really go after serious criminals.
Walker also notes there are many complaints among Arizona citizens that not enough focus is given to enforcing federal law and strained financial resources means fighting serious crime is not happening. He asks why are federal agents out there throwing away water bottles? And why is the US government bothering to prosecute volunteers who just want to save lives.
The attorney argues that the US attorney’s office is going into dangerous territory if it continues to prosecute volunteers for No More Deaths. He argues that similar efforts failed in the past, and the humanitarian work they do is popular among many in Arizona. Walker argues the community in the Tucson area is friendly to migrants and thinks they add value to their society. Also, he says there are conservative Republicans who put out water for migrants; it is not just people of the left side of the political spectrum doing it.