Eight activists helping migrants cross brutal desert charged by US government

Eight activists helping migrants cross brutal desert charged by US government

Rory Carroll, The Guardian, January 24, 2018

Eight humanitarian volunteers who help migrants survive desert treks have been charged with federal crimes, prompting fears of an escalating crackdown by the Trump administration.

The volunteers, all members of the Arizona-based group No More Deaths, appeared in court on Tuesday charged with a variety of offences including driving in a wilderness area, entering a wildlife refuge without a permit and abandoning property—the latter an apparent reference to leaving water, food and blankets on migrant trails.

The charges came a week after No More Deaths, a coalition of religious and community activists, published a report accusing border patrol agents of condemning migrants to death by sabotaging water containers and other supplies. It also accused agents of harassing volunteers in the field.

Hours after the report’s publication one activist, Scott Warren, 35, was arrested and charged with harboring two undocumented immigrants, a felony. No More Deaths stopped short of calling it retaliation for the report but said the timing was suspicious.

Warren was among the eight who appeared in court this week. It is a separate case which predates the report; the defendants started receiving summonses last month.

However, No More Deaths said the charges fit a pattern of interference in efforts to save the lives of migrants who trek for days or weeks across harsh deserts which bake by day and freeze by night.

“The charges also come during a nationwide crackdown on immigrant rights organizers, while the Trump administration seeks to end Daca, and increase deportations, potentially forcing thousands more into the dangerous desert journey,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

The charges relate to activities in Cabeza Prieta national wildlife refuge, which covers more than 800,000 acres of remote desert along Arizona’s border with Mexico.

Some 32 sets of human remains were found there last year, according to the Pima County office of the medical examiner, making it one of the region’s deadliest crossing routes. It has few natural water sources.

Border patrol agents have free rein in the refuge but activists are denied permission to use administrative roads and since July last year are banned from leaving humanitarian supplies, said No More Deaths.

Sid Slone, the refuge manager, told the Guardian activists have the same access as the general public. He declined to elaborate on migrant and humanitarian activity in the refuge, citing the legal case.

Border crossers are advised to drink between five to 12 litres of water daily, depending on conditions. Few manage to carry more than seven litres even though journeys can last weeks.

The No More Deaths report said water containers were vandalised 415 times, on average twice a week, in an 800 sq mile patch of desert south-west of Tucson, between 2012 and 2015. It said border patrol agents were the main culprits, citing video and other evidence.

The border patrol said it does not condone such vandalism and that rescue beacons and search, trauma and rescue units often save migrants’ lives.

The agency tangled with activists on occasion during the Bush and Obama administrations but there has been a marked uptick since Donald Trump entered the White House. Dozens of agents entered a No More Deaths encampment last June and removed migrants who were receiving medical care.

The Guardian accompanied Warren, the activist facing felony charges, in 2015 when he inspected water supplies left at Organ Pipe Cactus national monument. “It’s satisfying to know people are getting the water,” said Warren, an Arizona State University instructor.

Last Wednesday, the day of the report, border patrol agents detained him in the town of Ajo on suspicion of supplying food, water and clean clothes to two undocumented migrants.