As the crisis of death and disappearance continues in the Southwest borderlands, pressure is building on federal officials to drop all charges against humanitarian-aid workers providing lifesaving assistance to people walking through the remote Sonoran Desert. In June, lawyers from across the country filed a brief in the case of United States v. Scott Warren in support of the argument that the actions for which Scott is being prosecuted constitute such a deep and enduring part of his moral compass that the government is violating his religious freedom by pressing charges.
Scott is not alone in his beliefs. All of us here at No More Deaths stand strong in our conviction that caring for people in their time of need is a moral mandate.
The Religious Freedoms Restoration Act (RFRA) protects the rights of people to act on their deeply held ethical and spiritual beliefs and to be free from federal prosecution for doing so. The act itself has a deep and fascinating case-law history—from being used to uphold native people’s access to traditional ceremonial practices to allowing employers to ignore the contraceptive mandate within the Affordable Care Act—and this is the first time it is being employed within the struggle for immigrant justice.
“Given that this is the first case in which a RFRA claim has been raised as a defense in a federal criminal prosecution under immigration law, we felt it was important that we provide the judge guidance on how to structure his consideration of a religious-liberty claim in this context,” said Professor Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School.
“The relation of religion to immigration-law enforcement is all the more compelling,” she continued, “given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has quoted biblical text to justify the federal government’s aggressive immigration policies.”
In pretrial motion hearings, Scott Warren has himself testified that, to him, “providing humanitarian aid is a sacred act.” He also described how spiritually devastated he has been when he has come upon human remains in the desert: “The work that we do in discovering, working to identify and recover the people who have died is one of the most sacred things that we can do as humanitarian-aid workers in southern Arizona and in the desert . . . we witness and we are present for people and for their families, the people who . . . have perished.” When asked why he risked violating the law by providing water, food, and clothing to migrants in the desert, he testified “Based on my spiritual beliefs, I am compelled to act. I’m drawn to act. I have to act when someone is in need.”
Scott is not alone in his beliefs. All of us here at No More Deaths stand strong in our conviction that caring for people in their time of need is a moral mandate. We will continue to resist the criminalization of migration and of humanitarian aid and to fight for a world in which peace, justice, and human dignity are held sacrosanct.