Federal Government Drops Charges Against Four No More Deaths Volunteers, One Still Faces Trial

February 21, 2019

For Immediate Release

Federal Government Drops Charges Against Four No More Deaths Volunteers, One Still Faces Trial

TUCSON: On Thursday federal prosecutors dropped criminal charges against four humanitarian aid volunteers.  The charges came down as a result of the volunteers’ search for migrants missing in the desert. They have now been issued civil infractions carrying a fine of $250 each.  One remaining volunteer, Scott Warren, continues to await trial both on misdemeanor charges and felony charges for his humanitarian aid work in the Ajo corridor.

In July 2017, No More Deaths’ Search and Rescue hotline received a call about three migrants in distress on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Border Patrol and the local sheriff were notified but initially declined to mobilize resources to respond. The four humanitarian aid workers immediately initiated a search.

The volunteers spent hours searching for the three migrants. Upon exiting the refuge that night, they were stopped, detained and questioned by Fish and Wildlife officials and Border Patrol. In the following days two of the migrants were located alive and were subsequently deported.  Additional No More Deaths volunteers attempted to continue to search for the remaining individual but were denied access by refuge managers. The third man was never found.

Months later that group, as well as five other No More Deaths volunteers, found out that the government had filed federal charges against them for their work on the refuge.  Earlier this year, four went to trial and were convicted of federal misdemeanors – their sentencing is on March 1st.  Each volunteer faces both possible prison time and a fine of up to $10,000.  Warren is scheduled to go to trial in May of this year.

“Today might be a victory for No More Deaths, but people continue to die and disappear every day in the desert,”  said defendant Logan Hollarsmith. “Our hearts remain with the families of the disappeared. As long as border policy funnels migrants into the most remote corridors of the desert, the need for a humanitarian response will continue.”

OP ED: “I’m being prosecuted for trying to save the lives of three migrants”

The below op ed, published earlier this month by CNN , was written by Parker Deighan, the abuse documentation coordinator for No More Deaths and one of the #Cabeza9 defendants.

February 1, 2019 – In a little over a month, I will go on trial for driving a vehicle in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a vast wilderness area in Arizona that shares a border with Mexico. At the time of my offense, I was a volunteer for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, searching for three migrants who were lost without water. I was responding to a call from a family member who contacted our Search and Rescue hotline, after being turned away from law enforcement. Though I was never able to reach those migrants, I have since learned that two were detained and one was never found.

While the outcome of my case remains unclear, a recent court decision does not bode well for my future. This month, four volunteers, also with No More Deaths, were found guilty on misdemeanor charges of “Operating a Motor Vehicle in a Wilderness Area” and “Abandonment of Property.” The “property” referred to was water left for migrants dying of thirst in the Cabeza Prieta.

These trials are part of the Trump administration’s escalation in the targeting of humanitarian aid work in the borderlands. Rather than respecting our right to provide relief to migrants who have traversed thousands of miles in search of better lives, the administration is criminalizing our conduct in an area that government has historically done little to preserve.

And to be clear, while undocumented individuals have been crossing the border for years, the Trump administration has made the challenge of assisting that much harder. No More Deaths has worked openly since 2004, and previously enjoyed a friendly relationship with the local US attorney’s office, and were told by an assistant US attorney that he was not interested in prosecuting our volunteers.

This changed in 2017. The current US attorneys have aggressively pursued charges against our volunteers, including bringing felony charges of “harboring” against one of our long-term volunteers, who provided food, water and clean clothes to two men from Central America.

The irony of the charges against me is that I fully believe in the importance of protecting wildlife and wild spaces. Prior to moving to Arizona, I worked with the Montana Conservation Corps, and spent much of my free time exploring wilderness areas. I came to love the feeling of solitude in the backcountry. But upon hearing about No More Deaths from a friend, I went to volunteer for a month in 2015.

There, No More Deaths explained how remote terrain was being weaponized against people crossing the border, many of whom were fleeing poverty and violence. More specifically, since the mid-1990s, US border enforcement strategy has been to heavily concentrate enforcement in urban areas where people traditionally have crossed, thereby intentionally funneling migrants into remote and dangerous terrain, like Cabeza Prieta. After witnessing some of the suffering taking place there, I relocated to Tucson to dedicate myself to humanitarian aid work.

While some might argue that Cabeza Prieta could evoke an awe similar to that inspired by Montana’s vast wilderness — with its towering Saguaro cacti, flat expanses against jagged mountains and vivid sunsets — the truth is much more complex.

During World War II and the Korean War, the government used Cabeza Prieta as a military bombing range. Even today, the military uses the airspace for training exercises. As a result of military activity, visitors must get a permit and sign an agreement acknowledging that entering the refuge “presents the danger of permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury or death due to high explosive detonations from falling objects such as aircraft, aerial targets, live ammunition, missiles, bombs, and other similar dangerous situations.”

This is also the same land that Border Patrol agents now traverse daily, riding ATVs, driving trucks off-road and flying helicopters to police the border. And yet, the prosecution, in the trial of my four peers, argued that it was bringing charges in an effort to protect the “pristine, untrammeled” land.

So, why do humanitarians like me need access to Cabeza Prieta? Let’s take a look at the numbers. In a week of exploration on the refuge in 2016, volunteers with No More Deaths recovered four bodies in five days. Then, in 2017, the bodies of 32 people were recovered on the refuge. And given the challenges of accessing this vast wilderness, there are surely many more who have died and have yet to be discovered.

While the US border enforcement strategy intended to use the risk of death as a “deterrent” to unauthorized migration, it has actually caused a crisis of death and disappearance. And when humanitarian aid workers try to access maintained roads to recover the dead and prevent the deaths of migrants, land managers selectively weaponize the mandate of “wilderness conservation” to keep us out.

In one of the trials last week, I watched as Juliette Fernandez, regional fish and wildlife refuge manager and wilderness coordinator, testified on the importance of wilderness being a place where you can experience nature with little chance of encountering another person. What truth does this aspiration hold in a landscape where you may encounter the body of someone who has died?

Someday, I hope to walk out into the wilderness in southern Arizona, without the fear that I will encounter someone in distress, or the body of someone we were too late to help. I hope to walk out without helicopters circling overhead and armed agents driving past. I hope to feel at peace in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert.

But I know this will only happen when we no longer have a militarized border designed to funnel people into this perilous terrain. Until that day, humanitarian aid is vital to the preservation of human life and must not be criminalized.

Trials Begin January 15th

On Tuesday, January 15th at 8:30 AM, No More Deaths will hold a pre-trial press conference outside the Deconcini Federal Courthouse, 400 W Congress.  We ask supporters to join us then and for the rest of week in the courtroom as the trial unfolds.  Please tell us you are coming so we can be in touch if needs or updates arise.


DAILY TRIAL UPDATES


January 15th, 2019, TUCSON, AZ – Four No More Deaths volunteers facing federal misdemeanor charges begin trial today for their humanitarian aid work along the southwest border.  The aid workers are being prosecuted for their efforts to place life-saving food and water on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a vast and remote area south of Ajo, Arizona where 91 border crossers are known to have died since 2014 and countless more have gone missing.

“Members of our organization are being criminally prosecuted for placing water in areas where hundreds of people have died of thirst.” says Paige Corich-Kleim, a humanitarian aid volunteer with No More Deaths. “Anybody who has visited the refuge understands the harshness of the terrain and the need for a humanitarian response.”

The summer of 2017 was one of the deadliest on record in Arizona, resulting in a total of 32 known migrant deaths on the Refuge.  No More Deaths volunteers maintained a consistent presence in the area, putting out humanitarian aid supplies and responding to search and rescue calls for missing migrants.  That winter, nine volunteers, in places as disparate as New Orleans, Minneapolis and Seattle, received knocks on their door from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.  Charges include operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area, abandonment of property, and entering a wildlife refuge without a permit. One of the defendants is Ajo resident Dr. Scott Warren, who is also charged with felony harboring and conspiracy related to humanitarian aid work.  Dr. Warren’s felony trial is scheduled for May of this year.

The trial begins as the country goes into the fourth week of government shutdown, the longest in history.  “The president is holding the country hostage over his demand for a border wall and claiming the humanitarian aid crisis as justification for his actions,” says Max Granger, another longtime volunteer with the group.  “We believe a humanitarian crisis warrants a humanitarian response.  A border wall will do nothing to alleviate the crisis of death and disappearance along the US-Mexico border.  The protection of the right to give, and to receive, humanitarian aid is essential as long as the government maintains border policies that funnel migration into the most remote parts of the desert.”

Trials are expected to last through the week, with a verdict being issued sometime after trial ends.  Dr. Warren’s misdemeanor trial is scheduled for February and the final round of Cabeza defendants will go to trial in March.

What is required to stand for human rights

Dear friends of No More Deaths,

Because you have followed and supported No More Deaths, you already know the challenges that humanitarian-aid workers face in providing basic human needs like food and water to those who in desperation travel through our borderlands. We hear your voices, which encourage us to carry on because it is the right thing to do in spite of all our government does to discourage this work, including targeting our volunteers with a litany of criminal charges. Continue reading What is required to stand for human rights