Eight humanitarian-aid workers face federal charges

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Tucson, Arizona—On Tuesday, January 23, eight humanitarian-aid providers with No More Deaths appeared in court for federal misdemeanor charges relating to their work with the organization in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a vast and remote stretch of land near Ajo, Arizona that shares 56 miles with the US–Mexico border. One of the eight individuals is Scott Warren, who was also arrested last week by the US Border Patrol and now faces felony “harboring” charges.

The preliminary charges for each of the eight individuals are varied and include “driving on a wilderness area,” “abandonment of property,” and “entering a wildlife refuge without a permit.” The charges come amidst an escalation of interference with No More Deaths and its efforts to provide humanitarian aid in the deadly migration corridor. No More Deaths has been providing humanitarian aid on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge for the last three years.

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge covers over 803,000 acres of remote desert wilderness with no towns and only one publicly accessible road, known as the Devil’s Highway. Many individuals attempt to cross the US–Mexico border through this corridor, which can take anywhere from four days to several weeks. The area has virtually no natural water sources, and summertime temperatures can top 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the past several years, remains of people crossing the border have been consistently recovered on the refuge. In 2017, 32 sets of human remains were found there according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

Cabeza Prieta has denied No More Deaths access to administrative roads that would enable volunteers to bring higher volumes of water to crucial remote wilderness areas. Despite this, the Border Patrol has indiscriminately driven on all parts of the refuge, according to a report by the refuge itself. In response to the number of human remains, specifically on Cabeza Prieta, No More Deaths has intensified its efforts to deliver aid there, while Cabeza Prieta changed language on the access-permit application in July 2017 to specifically prohibit leaving humanitarian-aid supplies on the refuge.

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.

No More Deaths published a report last week detailing how Border Patrol agents routinely sabotage humanitarian aid left in the desert. The group, founded in 2004 to address rising deaths in the US–Mexico borderlands, continues to provide humanitarian aid in spite of the increase in surveillance and interference by federal agencies.