Humanitarian faces 20 years in prison for giving water to migrants in the desert

Warren has been charged with three felony counts for "harboring" undocumented immigrants.

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This week humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren will go to trial for providing water, food, clothes, and beds to two undocumented immigrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.

Warren, a humanitarian activist with the group No More Deaths, was arrested in January 2018 and has been charged with three felony counts for “harboring” undocumented immigrants.

No More Deaths, along with other humanitarian aid groups have left food and water in the Sonoran Desert, an area that has resulted in the death of thousands of migrants. More than 2,100 bodies of undocumented immigrants have been found in Pima County since 2001.

Warren was arrested shortly after No More Deaths released a report detailing how U.S. Border Patrol agents intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants in the desert. Border patrol agents arrived at “The Barn, a building used by several humanitarian aid organizations that provide food and water for migrants, and arrested Warren along with two migrants, Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday. If convicted of the charges, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

Activists and civil rights groups have called for the charges to be dropped since Warren’s arrest. A MoveOn.org petition calling for federal authorities to drop all charges has 130,000 signatures. Amnesty International demanded the same in an open letter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, called the charges “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.”

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Although volunteers in Arizona previously worked peacefully without Border Patrol intervention, in the past few years the government has cracked down on humanitarian aid in the area, aggressively prosecuting volunteers.

As Warren says in an op-ed published at the Washington Post:

Over the years, humanitarian groups and local residents navigated a coexistence with the Border Patrol. We would meet with agents and inform them of how and where we worked. At times, the Border Patrol sought to cultivate a closer relationship. “Glad you’re out here today,” I remember an agent telling me once. “People really need water.”

But these types of interactions are “rare these days,” writes Warren. “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.” Volunteers have face imprisonment and fines of up to $10,000 for federal misdemeanors such as “abandonment of property.”

According to NPR, “arrests of people, harboring, sheltering, leaving food and water or otherwise protecting migrants have been on the rise since 2017, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to prioritize cases covered under the harboring statute.”

As Warren says, “It’s kind of been an expansion of the interpretation of what it means to harbor.”

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