Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 29, 2019

Recently, four humanitarian aid workers were arrested for leaving water in the desert four migrants who might die from heat exhaustion. They were prosecuted and found guilty on misdemeanor counts, though one faces another felony count.

The four women were volunteers for No More Deaths, a religious nonprofit whose mission is to prevent undocumented migrants from dying during their perilous northward trek. Apparently, they drove into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, 100 miles southwest of Phoenix, to leave water jugs along with some canned beans.

Confronted by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer, Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick, made no effort to conceal their work, saying that everyone deserved access to basic survival needs.

Federal prosecutors disagreed, and have filed criminal charges for misdemeanor offenses of entering a refuge without a permit, abandoning personal property and driving in a restricted area. U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco said their actions ran afoul of the “national decision to maintain the reserve in its pristine nature.”

I’m struck with how far the border-slash-immigration-slash-America First arguments have eroded our sense of humanity that we would prosecute folks for leaving water for those in need, regardless of circumstance. Where is the right-to-life crowd? Where are our church leaders? Where are morality-laced politicians?

Since the turn of the century, more than 2,100 undocumented migrants have died in that sun-scorched region of southern Arizona, according to Humane Borders, a nonprofit group that keeps track of the numbers. Last year, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, the remains of 127 dead migrants were recovered there.

In the past, prosecutors declined to press charges against the volunteers who try to help by leaving water and canned food in the desert — something that this Unitarian Universalist ministrygroup does all the time.

That, says The Washington Post in a persuasive editorial, was then, and this is now — under the Trump administration, which basically has declared war on the border. The editorial called it “twisted frontier justice in the age of Trump.”

For emphasis, the editorial compared the humanitarian effort with a Border Patrol fata; shooting of a Mexican teenager, standing on Mexican soil, through the see-through fencing at the border — an act that drew trial but no punishment.

In fact, says the editorial, prosecutors have broad discretion in deciding whether to press such minor charges — just as they do in more consequential cases such as the manslaughter charge against Lonnie Swartz, the Border Patrol agent who killed José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, 16, in October, 2012, which preceded the Trump administration, of course. According to Swartz, he opened fire on the boy, shooting 16 times in what the agent said was self-defense, through the fence that divides the city of Nogales along the Arizona-Mexico border. He said the boy had been throwing stones at him across the frontier.

Swartz was acquitted on second-degree murder charges last spring, but the jury deadlocked on manslaughter charges. In a second trial, last fall, the jury also failed to reach a verdict on manslaughter. Last month, prosecutors declined to seek a third trial.

“While the aid workers seek to avoid prison time, Americans may well wonder about a system in which justice is rendered so perversely,” argued the Post.

What gets lost in the who-can-top-this political debate in Washington over adding to border security and keeping illegal immigrants from entering the United States are the sobering trials that real people are facing in their home countries that motivates them to spend all to risk death in an American desert. While we debate steel slats versus concrete, we are not getting at the basics of the problems here.

The Huffington Post recently described a group of about 60 faith leaders and border activists who hiked deep into a wildlife refugein southwestern Arizona, dropping plastic containers of water in the desert to save the lives of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The activists trekked in over 100-degree heat through the same area of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and delivered a total of 125 gallons of water.

I guess they must have slipped by border patrols, or fish and wildlife patrols. Maybe we need a wall around the desert.

I don’t claim to be an especially expert in all this, but while we are bullying Venezuelans over their approved government and demanding nonexistent payments from Mexico, we are not very focused on working to halt the basic crime conditions that are driving new caravans northward.

In any event, leaving water jugs for migrants hardly seems to be where we ought to be spending our prosecutorial effort. Maybe we should be rewarding people who care.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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