As an attorney general nominee is quizzed in Washington, federal prosecutors in Arizona argue that leaving water in the desert to save lives is a crime
As Senate confirmation hearings began yesterday for William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, a trial began in federal court in Tucson. Four volunteers with the faith-based humanitarian group No More Deaths / No Más Muertes are on trial for leaving food and water in a remote wilderness refuge in the vast Sonoran Desert. [Rafael Carranza / Arizona Republic]
A full and accurate count of deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border is impossible but as Ryan Devereaux wrote in The Intercept, “academic and journalistic investigations in recent years point to a loss of life of epic proportions.” In December 2017, USA Today reported that border crossings claimed at least “7,209 lives over the past 20 years,” but that “the actual number is far higher” because “federal authorities largely fail to count border crossers when their remains are recovered by local authorities, and even local counts are often incomplete.” In Arizona, No More Deaths volunteers say that the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge has been the site of a vast number of deaths, accounting for more than 45 percent of the human remains found in the state in 2017. [Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept]
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has described as Cabeza Prieta as “big and wild” and “incredibly hostile to those that need water to survive,” sharing a “56-mile border with Sonora, Mexico, [that] might well be the loneliest international boundary on the continent.” Thirty-three sets of human remains were found on the refuge last year alone, adding to the thousands of sets of human remains found along the border since U.S. government policy pushed migrants crossing into the desert over two decades ago. [Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept]
Under President Trump’s administration, with Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Border Patrol began targeting No More Deaths after largely allowing the group to operate under a “good-faith agreement” that volunteers could carry out their work without fears of arrest during President Barack Obama’s time in office. [Fernanda Santos / New York Times] Previous prosecutions of No More Deaths volunteers, under President George W. Bush’s administration, were unsuccessful, ending in dismissal or convictions being overturned on appeal.
Nine volunteers are facing criminal charges for providing assistance to migrants, with four on trial now and the remaining five scheduled to go to trial in the next few months. One of them, Scott Warren, is facing felony charges. All of the others have been charged with misdemeanors. The four volunteers currently on trial face three misdemeanor charges: entering a wilderness area without a permit, operating a vehicle in that wilderness area without a permit, and leaving behind personal property, in this case jugs of water and tins of beans intended for people passing through the desolate terrain. Each charge comes with penalties of up to six months in jail and $5,000 in fines. [Christian Britschgi / Reason] Lawyers for the four people on trial have say the volunteers were charged despite the U.S. Attorney’s Office promising weeks before their arrest that they were not interested in prosecuting these types of cases. [Rafael Carranza / Arizona Republic]
No More Deaths / No Más Muertes was founded in 2004. On “Democracy Now” to discuss the trial, Paige Corich-Kleim, the group’s advocacy director, described its work: “We…track where the Pima County medical examiner reports migrant deaths and where people are found, and then we go and try to prevent future deaths by leaving food, water, blankets in the winter, clean socks and things of that nature.” When volunteers started entering the Cabeza Prieta wilderness in 2014, she said, “what we found … was absolutely devastating. We started finding human remains pretty consistently, finding the bodies of people who had died.” [Democracy Now]
As the group began to leave jugs of water in the refuge for people crossing through its inhospitable terrain, land managers at the refuge began to change the language in permits to explicitly forbid leaving food, water, water containers, food containers, blankets, medical supplies, “really just listing out exactly the types of aid work and aid supplies that we wanted to be leaving,” according to Corich-Kleim. [Democracy Now]
Border Patrol’s response, in recent years, has been to destroy the humanitarian supplies that No More Deaths volunteers place in the desert. Last year, No More Deaths published “Interference to Humanitarian Aid,” a report that documents Border Patrol’s destruction of supplies, including 3,586 jugs of water through 2015. The organization also caught Border Patrol on camera breaking water jugs, publishing videos that attracted widespread attention.
It was hours after that report was published last January that Border Patrol raided “The Barn,” a property in Ajo, Arizona, used by No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups working in the desert. The agents took Warren and two men who had crossed the border just a few days earlier into custody. Warren faces felony charges for providing food, water, and shelter to the men who had spent multiple nights in the freezing desert. [Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept]
There have been allegations of improper communication between federal prosecutors and judges presiding over the No More Deaths volunteers’ cases. In December, in response to allegations from defense attorneys, Magistrate Judge Bruce G. Macdonald reassigned cases he was involved in, including the ones that have gone to trial this week, to Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco. [Curt Prendergast / Arizona Daily Star] But Velasco has also been accused of permitted “improper influence by the government,” by communicating with prosecutors over email regarding the scope of an order to release emails and texts sent to Border Patrol agents in the hours before they raided The Barn and arrested Scott Warren and the two other men. [Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept]