Humanitarian aid is being criminalized at the border

Deterrence strategies have turned increasingly punitive for immigrants and activists.

 

Supporters of the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths gather outside the US District Court in Tucson, Arizona on Jan. 15 as the first of three trials begins.

Shortly after Donald Trump became president, volunteers with the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, a humanitarian aid group, sat in the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona. Dozens of migrants were on a fast-track trial for trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally; these mass trials, which can take as little as 25 seconds per defendant, are part of Operation Streamline, a 2005 policy meant to deter people from returning after deportation. Two of the men facing a judge that day were so afraid, they could barely speak. They had been traveling separately, but their stories were nearly identical: A Border Patrol agent caught them in the Sonoran Desert and told them to take off their shoes. “Run,” the agent said. So the men ran— across uneven sandy ground laced with thorns — while the agent tracked them down, as if for sport. 

In recent months, Randy Mayer, the founder of the Samaritans and a pastor in Sahuarita, Arizona, has noticed a growing pattern of intimidation by Border Patrol agents as the administration’s border policy becomes increasingly aggressive. This so-called “deterrence” strategy is not new, but under Trump, it has taken increasingly punitive forms — from detaining migrant children in tent camps along the border, to prosecuting humanitarian aid volunteers working to save lives along deadly stretches of the southern Arizona desert.

“I do think that they are trying to make migrants criminal — that’s clear,” said Mayer, citing the recent revelation that thousands more migrant children had been separated from their parents than had been previously disclosed. “All these deterrent programs are focused on ramping up the consequences” of migration, he said.

Last month, four volunteers with the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths fell prey to a similar tactic: They were convicted of misdemeanor crimes for leaving water and food for migrants in southern Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a permit. (On Feb. 21, federal prosecutors dropped the criminal charges of four other No More Deaths volunteers, issuing fines of $250 each instead.) In late May, another No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, will stand trial on much more serious felony charges for helping migrants at an aid station in Ajo, Arizona, 43 miles north of the border. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison. For the small nonprofits on the border and elsewhere in the West, trying to counteract the often-deadly effects of deterrence, the trials raise an unnerving possibility: Is the U.S. government trying to outlaw humanitarian aid? 

Scott Warren, left, speaks with No More Deaths volunteers as they prepare to drop food and water along a migrant trail that crosses Bureau of Land Management land outside of Ajo, Arizona, in 2015.
Andrew Cullen

Mayer, who grew up in Montana and later spent time in Central America moved to Sahuarita 1998, drawn by the culture, language and food of the Sonoran Desert — its climate, too. But once here, he found himself immersed in a growing humanitarian crisis. Four years previously, then-President Bill Clinton had implemented a new border-enforcement policy called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” which helped militarize the border and sealed off urban entry points, funneling unauthorized migrants to more remote and dangerous routes through the desert.

By the time Mayer moved to Sahuarita, the Sonoran Desert had become the primary migration corridor, and more and more people were dying along its path. Small volunteer organizations like No More Deaths emerged as a response, but still, more than 3,000 bodies have been recovered in the Arizona desert since 2000—though the true death toll is believed to be much higher. 

At first, these organizations operated with little interference from the Border Patrol and land managers, but their efforts have come under increasing attack — especially under President Trump. For No More Deaths, the turning point came in June 2017, when the Border Patrol raided No More Deaths’ medical aid station in Arivaca, Arizona, which had been in use for over a decade. In January 2018, No More Deaths released a damning report and videos showing how Border Patrol agents have routinely destroyed water caches and other humanitarian aid supplies for years. Hours after that, Scott Warren was arrested.

Some land managers, like Rijk Morawe, the chief of resource management for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, worry that certain kinds of humanitarian efforts end up exacerbating the very problem they seek to solve, “if the food and water caches encourage people to keep walking north across that desert.”

Still, volunteers say it’s hard not to view the criminal charges as political. Under “Prevention through Deterrence,” the risk of death was used as an enforcement practice, says Parker Deighan, a No More Deaths volunteer. “You can see how leaving water for migrants gets in the way,” she added. 

Amy Knight, Warren’s defense lawyer, says that by charging her client with harboring two undocumented immigrants and conspiring to transport them, the government is attempting to treat humanitarian aid as human smuggling. Yet government prosecutors have refused to divulge who exactly they believe Warren was conspiring with. 

South of Arivaca, Arizona, volunteers with Tucson Samaritans leave jugs of water, food and socks along migrant trails.

The hardening of national boundaries transforms borders into spaces of exception, according to border scholars like University of Hawaii Mānoa professor Reece Jones; they become places where the usual laws are suspended — where human lives are seen as more expendable, lacking in political value.

And yet, there are exceptions, even in difficult times. Mayer was shocked when, a few weeks ago, a Border Patrol agent stopped by a Samaritan water drop vehicle and told the volunteers that they were his heroes. He explained that he’d found a 13-year-old girl who’d been abandoned by her group and raped repeatedly; she survived thanks to one of the water stashes the group had left behind. The Border Patrol agent carried her for miles to safety. Mayer listened and thought to himself, “This guy is our hero.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against four No More Deaths volunteers.

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