A faith-based humanitarian group that provides aid and shelter to undocumented migrants on the southwestern border fears it has become the latest target in the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration advocates. Nine members of the group, No More Deaths, were charged with federal crimes and misdemeanors in recent months, including one volunteer arrested last week shortly after the publication of a report documenting alleged abuses by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Last week, the Tucson, Arizona-based organization published a report presenting what it described as evidence of Border Patrol agents’ systematic destruction of water jugs left for migrants in the desert, as well as “months of increasing surveillance and harassment” by the agency beginning last year. Hours after the report was published, one of the group’s organizers was arrested in a remote area of Arizona, along with two undocumented immigrants, and hit with felony charges.
According to a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Arizona, Border Patrol agents conducting surveillance in the town of Ajo observed Scott Warren, 35, and two undocumented immigrants entering a building — referred to as “the Barn” — on January 17, 2018, the same day the humanitarian group’s report was published. The migrants reportedly learned of the Barn’s address, and the sanctuary it was said to provide, through online research.
“Warren met them outside and gave them food and water for approximately three days,” the complaint states, accusing the activist and Arizona State University instructor of also providing the migrants with “beds and clean clothes.”
With assistance from Pima County sheriffs’ deputies, the Border Patrol agents knocked on the door of the Barn and found Warren and the others inside. The government is now relying on the migrants as material witnesses in its case against Warren, who was charged with bringing in and harboring undocumented immigrants.
For Warren, last week marked his second brush with federal law enforcement since June, when he was cited by an officer with the Department of the Interior in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle in a federally designated wildlife area and abandoning personal property — littering — in a national wildlife refuge.
The same types of charges — misdemeanors that carry a maximum six-month sentence — have also been used against eight other No More Deaths summer volunteers, most of them from out of state. U.S. marshals began serving the summonses last month, when many of the volunteers had returned home to locations across the country. On Tuesday, the defendants, whose charges have not been previously reported, had their first court hearing — the five out-of-state defendants attended by video.
Legally, Warren’s arrest last week and the summonses he and his fellow volunteers received are distinct cases, but that doesn’t mean they are unrelated, No More Deaths says. At the center of it all, the group says, is its longstanding practice of leaving jugs of water for migrants making their way through some of the border’s most treacherous terrain, and a broader campaign on the part of the Trump administration to target immigration advocates with prosecutions related to their work.
“They’re definitely connected,” said William G. Walker, a Tucson-based attorney who has represented No More Deaths volunteers for more than a decade and is currently providing counsel to the latest round of defendants. No More Deaths has maintained “a cooperative, working relationship with both the Border Patrol and the U.S. attorney’s office,” Walker said in an interview before Tuesday’s court hearing. The activities the volunteers are accused of taking part in, the attorney explained, are activities the organization has “been engaged in for the last several years.”
“Border Patrol — and the U.S. attorney — knows about the activities, has surveilled the activities, has permitted the activities, has recognized that we’re out there helping to save lives,” Walker said. “And now all of the sudden it’s all changed.”
Border Patrol declined to comment on the recent charges, deferring to the U.S. attorney’s office. In a statement to the Washington Post Tuesday night, Carlos Diaz, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that Warren’s arrest was “not retaliation” and “we’re protecting immigration laws in the area and there was a situation in which we needed to do the arrest because there were some illegal individuals in that area.”
The U.S. attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the other No More Deaths cases. In an interview with The Intercept last week, however, Steven Passement, acting special operations supervisor in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said his agents “work together” with No More Deaths in situations “where it involves saving lives.”
While the federal government maintained a hands-off approach in recent years, the arrest of a volunteer for providing assistance to undocumented migrants and the attempt to prosecute members who leave water for migrants in federal wildlife preserves are issues the organization has dealt with before.
In 2005, volunteers Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were arrested by Border Patrol agents as they attempted to transport three undocumented migrants to a local hospital. The volunteers, both in their early 20s at the time, faced up to 15 years in prison. But a judge threw out the charges, ruling that the young volunteers were acting in accordance with a set of protocols they had been told were legally sound. Five years later, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a littering conviction against Daniel Millis, a No More Deaths volunteer, for leaving gallons of water for migrants in Arizona’s Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, ruling that water did not meet the definition of waste.
Walker represented the defendants in both cases. In the wake of the Millis ruling in 2010, he said his client’s prosecution was the result of “a highly politicized decision by the Department of Justice under the Bush administration to shut these people down.” Eight years later, Walker suggested the era of politicized prosecutions has returned with a vengeance under the Trump administration, attributing the shift to “the federal government being of such a mindset that they’re more interested in locking up humanitarians than they are in really going after real crime.”
Walker said there are persistent complaints among Arizonans that not enough focus is given to enforcing the law and strained resources mean crime fighting falls by the wayside. “So why are we out there, then, using these precious resources to slash water bottles?” he asked. “To arrest and charge humanitarian volunteers from across the country that are trying to save lives?”
“I know why we do it,” he added. “We have a racist federal government now, and you can quote me on that.”
Among the Trump officials taking a hard line are former Department of Homeland Security secretary-turned-White House chief of staff John Kelly, who appeared on national television to defend separating mothers from their children at the U.S. border; Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who called on federal prosecutors nationwide to bring charges against parents who pay to have their children smuggled into the U.S.; and Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who last year said all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should live in fear and called for the prosecution of political officials who resist the administration’s enforcement agenda.
Recent weeks have seen a string of reports from across the country of outspoken, undocumented immigration advocates arrested and, in some cases, deported. Earlier this month in New York City, two prominent immigration activists were arrested — and one deported — prompting a chaotic protest in lower Manhattan. An investigation by The Intercept found that the arrests were preceded by a series of visits by ICE officers — and potential surveillance — to houses of worship around the city that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.
ICE has denied that its arrests are politically motivated. And it may well be the case that there is no overriding order to immigration agents — whether they work for ICE, Border Patrol, or CBP — to take actions that they would have been inclined not to take in years past. But immigration advocates from coast to coast worry that the change in posture and rhetoric coming from the White House alone has been enough to change conditions on the ground.
“I think one of the things that we’re seeing is an escalation in tactics by on-the-ground agents that are emboldened by racist and dehumanizing policies of this administration,” said Genevieve Schroeder, a volunteer with No More Deaths. “It has really disturbing implications for emboldened actions that are being taken against people that are in the field, who have much less of a media platform than humanitarian aid workers or possibly sanctuary rights movement leaders.”
Born out of a multi-faith border conference in 2004, No More Deaths serves as an umbrella organization for an array of religious and community groups working in some of the harshest terrain along the divide between the U.S. and Mexico. In addition to leaving gallon jugs of water in remote areas where migrants make their way into the U.S., the organization also maintains camps where migrants can receive medical care and routinely aids in the recovery of bodies along the border.
The true scale of deaths that occur along the U.S. border with Mexico is unknown, but academic and journalistic investigations in recent years point to a loss of life of epic proportions. In a report published in December, USA Today found that illegal border crossings have 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, specifically, No More Deaths says the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge has become a particularly deadly location, accounting for 45 percent of the remains found in the state in 2017. Volunteers described the refuge, with its limited vehicle accessibility, as a mass graveyard where humanitarian visits routinely result in the discovery of human remains.
In a report published last year, DHS said the “southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before.” This increased difficulty has had numerous second- and third-order effects. One is the rise of a booming smuggling market, which is in many respects managed by Mexico’s vicious organized crime syndicates. According to last year’s DHS report, “Relatively few illegal border crossers hired a smuggler prior to 2001, but usage rates climbed to 80-95 percent among apprehended border crossers in 2015.” The post-9/11 build-up of an unparalleled border surveillance infrastructure and the deployment of thousands of new Border Patrol agents in recent years has caused these smuggling networks to adapt, in part, by funneling migrants through more remote and dangerous terrain.
The re-routing of immigrant pathways is not an accident. The effort to push migrants away from more populated areas came about through a 20-year-old Border Patrol strategy known as “prevention through deterrence.” No More Deaths views the strategy as a driving force behind the dramatic rise in border deaths over the past two decades. The organization is not shy about the radical political solutions it sees to the problems on the border. In a set of demands included in its report last week, the humanitarian group, along with its partner organization, La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, called for the “permanent” dismantling of the U.S. Border Patrol and a “reparations program for the families of all persons disappeared or deceased as a result of the U.S. border policy of Prevention Through Deterrence.”
The politics of No More Deaths have clearly placed the group at odds with the Border Patrol, not to mention the armed right-wing militias that roam the Arizona desert. But as Walker, the attorney, noted, recent years have been characterized by an understanding between the volunteers and the law enforcement agency. The first strong indication of a change in that understanding occurred in June, when Border Patrol agents tracked a group of migrants to a No More Deaths encampment outside of Arivaca, Arizona. Following a tense, three-day stand-off, roughly 30 well-armed Border Patrol agents entered the camp and removed the migrants, who had been receiving medical care.
Walker said the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona is venturing into dangerous territory if it intends to ramp up prosecutions of No More Deaths volunteers. Not only have similar efforts failed in the past, he said, but the kind of humanitarian work the group does is popular among many Arizonans, particularly in Tucson. “We have a humanitarian-oriented community here. We’re migrant-friendly and we understand the value of migrants here and what they do for our society,” he said. “This is not two different sides that have two different stories and different legitimate positions. We have conservative Republican people that are out there putting water out for migrants. Humanitarians are on all sides of the political spectrum.”
Schroeder, the No More Deaths volunteer, worries that without a swift change in direction, the continued targeting of immigrant rights advocates could become “normalized in the same way that the deaths, disappearances, and felony convictions of people who are simply moving themselves to create a better life have become normalized.”
Correction: Jan. 24, 2018
An earlier version of this story said that eight members of the group No More Deaths had been charged with federal crimes in recent months for their involvement in humanitarian activities near the U.S.-Mexico border. The number was based on information from the group as well as an attorney representing activists in court (the U.S Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment). The story has been corrected to reflect that nine No More Deaths members have been charged with crimes in recent months.