The Scott Warren Case is Part of a Crackdown on Aid to Migrants

[Jan. 11, 2019] He offered food, water, and clothing to migrants on a deadly stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. Now he’s facing twenty years in prison. Humanitarian groups fear the situation will only get worse.

A year ago, two undocumented Central American immigrants who crossed into Arizona from Mexico found themselves in especially dire straits. The two immigrants, Kristen Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, had dropped their backpacks containing food and water while being chased by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Their journey into Pima County, on the Arizona side of the border, was high risk. More than 2,100 bodies of undocumented immigrants, many of them never identified, have been found there since 2001, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. But like many other immigrants fleeing violence and desperation, they were willing to chance the brutal desert terrain.

After walking about forty miles through the southern Arizona desert, the two immigrants finally reached the small town of Ajo, where they were taken to “The Barn.” This is a building in town used by No More Deaths, Ajo Samaritans, and several other humanitarian aid organizations that provide border crossers with water and food.

The Barn, however, is where their journey came to an end. Border Patrol agents arrested Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday, along with No More Deaths activist Scott Warren, who is accused of providing them with food, water, bedding, and clothes over three days. Charged with harboring undocumented immigrants, as well as conspiracy to transport and harbor them, Warren faces a maximum of twenty years in prison.

The Trump Administration, with an ever-increasing show of force at the border, continues to force migrants to take more dangerous routes. It is also extending its crackdown to those providing humanitarian aid.

Hiram Soto, spokesman for Southern Border Communities Coalition, an umbrella organization of about sixty-five groups that seeks to ensure border enforcement respects human rights and prevents loss of life, lamented this turn of events: “We should be encouraging people to help those in need—not going after them with vindictive action.”

The surveillance and arrest of Warren came within hours of No More Deaths issuing a report accusing U.S. Border Patrol agents of “regular and widespread destruction of water supplies with little or no consequence.” The report, emailed to the Border Patrol that morning, includes a video showing agents destroying water jugs.

Whether throwing the book at Warren was in retaliation for the report should come out at his trial. It is scheduled to begin in the U.S. District Court in Tucson on January 14 but is expected to be delayed, partly because Warren’s lawyers want fuller disclosure of Border Patrol emails leading up to his arrest. (The U.S. attorney’s office has more Border Patrol emails than it thinks are relevant to the case and so far Warren’s lawyers have been limited in what they can review.)

Warren is one of nine volunteers with No More Deaths facing misdemeanor charges of trespassing and abandoning “property”—specifically, food and water left for border crossers—and for operating a vehicle on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

The trial for four of these defendants—not Warren—is scheduled for January 15.

While the relationship between the Border Patrol and humanitarian groups has long been uneasy, everyone recognizes that providing water to border crossers can save lives. But the Warren felony prosecution and pending misdemeanor cases suggest the agency is taking a more aggressive position against those who provide support for desperate immigrants.

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James Goodman