This week a federal trial began for a 36-year old college professor and activist Scott Warren. Warren could face 20 years in prison for giving humanitarian aid to migrants in the Arizona desert.
Warren is a volunteer for the humanitarian organization No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. Warren was arrested back in 2017 for providing food, water, clean clothes, and a bed to two migrants.
Pam and Mark Warren, Scott’s parents created a MoveOn.org petition calling for federal authorities to drop all charges. So far, the petition has garnered nearly 130,000 signatures.
On May 15, Amnesty International penned a letter to Michael Bailey, the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona. In the letter, the organization’s regional director Erika Guevara-Rosas wrote that the charges against Warren “are an unjust criminalization of direct humanitarian assistance” and “appear to constitute a politically motivated violation of his protected rights as a Human Rights Defender.”
“Providing humanitarian aid is never a crime,” Guevara-Rosas added. “If Dr. Warren were convicted and imprisoned on these absurd charges, he would be a prisoner of conscience, detained for his volunteer activities motivated by humanitarian principles and his religious beliefs.”
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, the eve before his trial was set to begin, Warren wrote, “In the Sonoran Desert, the temperature can reach 120 degrees during the day and plummet at night. Water is scarce. Tighter border policies have forced migrants into a harsher and more remote territory, and many who attempt to traverse this landscape don’t survive. Along what’s become known as the Ajo corridor, dozens of bodies are found each year; many more are assumed to be undiscovered.
Local residents and volunteers organize hikes into this desert to offer humanitarian aid. We haul jugs of water and buckets filled with canned food, socks, electrolytes, and basic first-aid supplies to a few sites along the mountain and canyon paths. Other times, we get a report that someone has gone missing, and our mission becomes search and rescue—or, more often, to recover the bodies and bones of those who have died.”
Warren says that up until his arrest volunteers had previously coexisted with Border Patrol agents, but now those days are long gone.
In recent years, “government authorities have cracked down on humanitarian aid: denying permits to enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and kicking over and slashing water jugs,” Warren wrote. “They are also aggressively prosecuting volunteers.”
Warren warned that “my case, in particular, may set a dangerous precedent, as the government expands its definitions of ‘transportation’ and ‘harboring'” under federal law. In addition to humanitarian workers, there are worries such treatment could be applied to families with mixed citizenship status who provide for undocumented relatives.
“Though this possibility would have seemed far-fetched a few years ago, it has become frighteningly real,” wrote Warren. “The Trump administration’s policies—warehousing asylees, separating families, caging children—seek to impose hardship and cruelty. For this strategy to work, it must also stamp out kindness.”
“It is scary to be intimidated like this and to be targeted but there really is no choice,” said Warren. He believes the government is violating his right to religious freedom by criminalizing his spiritual belief that mandates he help people in distress.
“For the government, it’s kind of been an expansion of the interpretation of what it means to harbor,” he suggested.
Amnesty’s Guevara-Rosas, in her statement last week, noted that “the U.S. government is legally required to prevent the arbitrary deaths of migrants and asylum-seekers in border areas. Yet instead, authorities have willfully destroyed humanitarian aid provisions in deadly desert terrain and are criminally prosecuting humanitarian volunteers in order to deter them from saving lives.”
In response to Warren’s trial, she said that “the U.S. government should immediately adopt and implement exemptions from criminal prosecution under ‘smuggling’ and ‘harboring’ charges, for the provision of humanitarian aid.”
The stretch of desert near Ajo where Warren gave humanitarian aid can be deadly. Since 2001 there have been 250 migrant deaths in the region since and thousands have died of dehydration and exposure in the Arizona borderlands.
We are now living in a country where having compassion can cost us our freedom.