One of the biggest issues surrounding immigration in the Southwest has been the plight of undocumented workers crossing the borders. At least 182 people died trying to cross through the Arizona desert last year. We speak with Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, student volunteers with No More Deaths, a humanitarian group that provides aid to immigrants crossing the Arizona-Mexico border. In 2005, they were arrested and charged with two felonies for helping three undocumented immigrants get urgently needed medical care. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Houston, Texas, talking about who can come into this country and who can’t; who, when coming into this country, is imprisoned and who is freed. Here in the Southwest, one of the biggest issues surrounding the immigration has been the plight of undocumented workers crossing the borders. At least 182 people died trying to cross the Arizona desert last year.
Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss are student volunteers with the group No More Deaths, a humanitarian group that provides aid to immigrants crossing into Arizona from Mexico. In the heat of summer of July 2005, they were arrested and charged with two felonies for helping three undocumented workers who needed medical care. No More Deaths responded with a campaign they called “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime.”
Well, ultimately the charges were dismissed against the two students, but Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss join me here now in Houston. They came to Houston yesterday for an award that was given to them by the Rothko Chapel called the Oscar Romero Human Rights Prize. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you.
Let’s go back to that time, to July 9, 2005, and let’s talk about what happened in the desert. First of all, I want to find out what you two were doing in the desert then. Daniel Strauss, let’s begin with you. You were a student, where?
DANIEL STRAUSS: I was a student at Colorado College and actually at that time had already graduated from school, and I was living in Tucson, working for No More Deaths, helping to save lives of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. No More Deaths had 24-hour first aid stations out in the desert, and we would go out daily looking for migrants who were in distress, driving the roads, walking on the trails. And every day we would encounter migrants who were sick, needed help.
On the day of our arrest, we had encountered nine migrants in a group. They had been in the desert for four days, two of which they were without food and water. It was the week that was the deadliest week on record in Arizona history. Seventy-eight migrants died during that week.
AMY GOODMAN: Seventy-eight in a week.
DANIEL STRAUSS: In a one-week period. It had been over a hundred degrees for 40 straight days.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you found these people in the desert.
DANIEL STRAUSS: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Your class that had gone a few months before, was it?
DANIEL STRAUSS: The year before, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: The year before. How many came back to participate in No More Deaths, or was it just you?
DANIEL STRAUSS: Eight of us did, actually. We were so moved by what we saw on the border. We had gone on a class trip to get the migrant experience, and we spoke with migrants in Mexico who were about to cross and learned of their tragedy, what they were going through, why they had to leave their home communities, and the struggles that they went through to cross the desert, and why so many people would take that journey and risk their lives. And to us, that story was so moving. They were heroes to us. We felt like we had to do something to help them.
AMY GOODMAN: Shanti Sellz, how did you end up there on the border that day with Daniel?
SHANTI SELLZ: I had moved to the border in 2004 to take a job and was very quickly introduced to the reality of the border and began working with a small group in a small town close to the border, putting water into the desert for people who were crossing, and with that group learned of No More Deaths and the camp that Daniel and his school classmates had set up and went as a volunteer to participate in the camps with them and then returned the following summer as a full-time volunteer to help coordinate the camp.
AMY GOODMAN: So describe what happened on July 9.
SHANTI SELLZ: Daniel and I were involved in an evacuation, which is part of the work that No More Deaths has done, part of our protocol that we’ve established with the Border Patrol, that when we find people in severe medical distress, through a protocol calling a medical professional, we would transport and evacuate that person to a medical facility for the care that they need. And many times people need IVs. They need hospital care.
And in this situation, we were evacuating three men who were severely ill. One had been vomiting, said he couldn’t keep anything down for days. He also reported finding blood in his stool over the past day, which is a very dangerous sign of internal problems and failure. And all of them had blisters on their feet that kept them from walking, and they had been exposed in the desert for over four days. And again, as Daniel said, it was over a hundred degrees every day of the time they were there. So through our process, we deemed these three men needed evacuation, and we were bringing them to a medical facility in Tucson, when we were pulled over and arrested by the Border Patrol for having these three undocumented people in our vehicles.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had been doing this for quite a while at that point. Daniel, why do you think on this day they pulled you over? They knew what No More Deaths was doing, the Border Patrol.
DANIEL STRAUSS: Yeah, the work of No More Deaths was completely out in the open. The men who were in our vehicle were sitting up straight. They weren’t hidden in any way. We had signs on our vehicle that identified the organization we were working for. That’s a good question. We really don’t know exactly what changed from the day before, when we passed Border Patrol completely in the open, waved to them, waved back, to the day that we were arrested. Something changed politically, a change in policy, and they wanted to shut down our organization and the work that we did.
AMY GOODMAN: Shanti, what did you face at that point when they arrested you? And what did they charge you with?
SHANTI SELLZ: Initially, they charged us with a felony count of aiding and abetting and furtherance of illegal presence in the United States, which is basically a smuggling charge that held a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a felony charge. And we were also given a misdemeanor of obstruction of justice. And then in August of 2005, we were indicted, and the grand jury dropped the misdemeanor charge but added another felony of conspiracy, which held a 10-year maximum sentence, which brought our maximum up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
AMY GOODMAN: So it was a kind of a, quote, “alien smuggling” charge that you faced.
SHANTI SELLZ: Exactly, and conspiracy to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fine you would also face?
SHANTI SELLZ: Yeah, that’s part of — up to $500,000 in fines.
AMY GOODMAN: How did people organize at this point, mobilize around your case?
SHANTI SELLZ: No More Deaths launched the Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime campaign in response to the indictment. And an amazing mobilization happened around this campaign. People from all over the world responded to our campaign. And we were targeting, at that point, the U.S. attorney for the state of Arizona directly, Paul Charlton, who had veto power over this case, and we sent thousands and thousands of postcards to his office demanding that these charges be dropped, and he never dropped the charges. And as time progressed, this case went on for almost a year and a half.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to continue your work on the border?
SHANTI SELLZ: We both continued to work with No More Deaths as this progressed and had a very, very supportive community. And again, there’s many, many people, hundreds of people, who do this work in the desert and who continue to do this work, this life-saving work.
AMY GOODMAN: And your response, Daniel, to those who say you are aiding people who are committing crimes by coming into this, simply by the act of crossing the border illegally?
DANIEL STRAUSS: It’s our opinion that no one should die for the reason of coming into this country without documents. Our organization simply is a humanitarian organization with the goal of saving lives of people who are dying. It’s a fact that people are dying along the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers every year. In the last 10 years, there’s been around 5,000 known deaths of migrants. That’s an astonishing amount of people who are dying. And something needs to be done. And the work of No More Deaths and others has done a tremendous job in stopping some of these deaths along the border. It’s never a crime to save someone’s life, is my opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: You have just been awarded $20,000 by the Rothko Chapel for the Oscar Romero Human Rights Prize, named for the Archbishop of El Salvador who was gunned down March 24, 1980, as he spoke out against the repression in his country and urged the soldiers of his country to put down their arms, to end the repression. How do you link those two issues? After break, we’ll be joined by the man who really began the movement, No More Deaths, that you are contributing some of your money to.
SHANTI SELLZ: Well, this is another example of state-sponsored repression of speaking out against — by your actions, by supporting the poor and the repressed. The government is repressing the work of people who choose to help those who are being marginalized and hurt by government policies. And Daniel and I did —- we faced prison time, and it was a very difficult process, but ultimately we weren’t facing death and murder as Oscar Romero did. But it’s another example of the government wanting to silence people who are working to aid those who are the poor and who are being kept down by the government, and so -—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining with us. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Reverend John Fife, who not only helped to found the No More Deaths movement, but 20 years ago the Sanctuary Movement, for which he stood against similar charges as you did. I want to thank you both, and congratulations on winning the human rights prize, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss.