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Arizona Activists Face Jail Time for Providing Life-Saving Aid to Migrants Crossing Sonoran Desert

StoryJanuary 15, 2019
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Image Credit: No More Deaths

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history heads into its 25th day and President Trump continues to crack down on immigrants, we look at how the Trump administration is criminalizing humanitarian aid at the border. In Tucson, Arizona, activists with the humanitarian group No More Deaths go to trial today facing charges for a slew of federal crimes, all due to their efforts to leave water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert to help refugees and migrants survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border. The charges were filed last year in January, just a week after No More Deaths published a report accusing U.S. Border Patrol agents of routinely vandalizing or confiscating water, food and other humanitarian aid, condemning refugees and migrants to die of exposure or dehydration. We speak with Paige Corich-Kleim, a humanitarian aid worker and volunteer with No More Deaths, and Ryan Devereaux, a staff reporter at The Intercept. His latest piece is titled “Arizona Judge in No More Deaths Case Had Secret Talks with Federal Prosecutors.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is 25 days old now, President Trump continues his immigration crackdown. We end today’s show looking at how the Trump administration is criminalizing humanitarian aid at the border.

In Tucson, Arizona, activists with the humanitarian group No More Deaths go on trial today, facing charges for a slew of federal crimes, all because of their efforts to leave water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert to help refugees survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border.

The charges were filed last year, January 2018, just a week after No More Deaths published a report accusing U.S. Border Patrol agents of routinely vandalizing or confiscating food, water and other humanitarian aid, condemning refugees to die of exposure or dehydration.

Just hours after the report was released, No More Deaths volunteer Scott Daniel Warren was arrested and charged with felony counts of harboring and conspiracy, after he was observed providing migrants with food, water and shelter over the course of three days. Warren faces two decades, 20 years in prison, if convicted.

No More Deaths found, between 2012 and 2016, Border Patrol agents emptied nearly 4,000 gallons of water left for migrants in the desert, also confiscating food, emergency medical blankets and other aid.

For more, we’re going to Tucson, where we’re joined by two guests. Paige Corich-Kleim is a humanitarian aid worker, volunteer with No More Deaths. And Ryan Devereaux is staff reporter at The Intercept, where he covers immigration enforcement, the drug war and national security. His latest piece, “Arizona Judge in No More Deaths Case Had Secret Talks with Federal Prosecutors.”

Let’s begin there. Ryan, what did you uncover?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah, thank you, Amy. So, last month, motions were filed, and in a series of motions we discovered that the judge in Scott Warren’s case, who you described in the run-up to this segment, had conversations with prosecutors in his case in which the prosecutors were attempting to narrow the scope of materials that they were required to disclose in Warren’s case—namely, communications sent to the Border Patrol agents involved in Warren’s arrest. These conversations occurred without any consultation from Warren’s defense team. And Warren’s defense team has since argued that they were wholly improper, and called for the removal of the judge in the case and the removal of the prosecutors in the case.

There was a hearing yesterday on these matters. And going forward, the judge in Warren’s case is now going to be Judge Raner Collins, who has presided over No More Deaths cases in the past. And Warren’s attorneys are arguing that things be taken a step further and that the prosecutors actually be removed, the indictment be dropped against Warren, and, at the very least, failing that, that this case be taken out of the hands of the U.S. Attorney’s Office here in Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: Paige Corich-Kleim, can you—you’ve been volunteering for No More Deaths for, what, five years. Explain exactly what volunteers do and what the nine people who are on trial today did.

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: So, our volunteers do a number of things. We leave humanitarian aid supplies in areas where there have been known migrant deaths. So we track where the Pima County medical examiner reports migrant deaths and where people are found, and then we go and try to prevent future deaths by leaving food, water, blankets in the winter, clean socks and things of that nature.

And so, we expanded to the Ajo corridor in 2014. We were founded in 2004 and mostly worked around Arivaca. And what we found when we started entering into the Cabeza Prieta wilderness was absolutely devastating. We started finding human remains pretty consistently, finding the bodies of people who had died. And so we really started working out there more and having a stronger presence and putting out water.

And our response from the land managers was a direct change in their permitting language to ban humanitarian aid supplies, so they added a clause in their permit application saying that volunteers specifically could not leave food, water, water containers, food containers, blankets, medical supplies—really just listing out exactly the types of aid work and aid supplies that we wanted to be leaving. So, you know, we’ve been trying to be in dialogue with them, but we also have kind of moved into this time where we’re having a pretty adversarial interaction and relationship with the land management out there.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you get involved with this, Paige? And talk about what happened last year, almost exactly a year ago, after No More Deaths came out with their report and the first arrests were made—actually, it’s not the first arrests of No More Deaths volunteers, by any means.

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: So, I got involved just after being in college and coming out to the border and seeing what was happening here. And it’s a really devastating, compelling issue, and I think the work that No More Deaths does is really effective in intervening in it, when it’s able to exist.

About a year ago, we published a report, part of our “Disappeared” series, called “Interference in Humanitarian Aid,” and we published documentation of Border Patrol consistently destroying our humanitarian aid supplies, as well as some video of them actually doing it. We put out trail cameras on different areas where we had seen our water drops be destroyed, and we actually caught Border Patrol on camera destroying our aid supplies. And so we went public with that, and the video that we released went viral and was seen all around the world by millions of people.

And then, hours later, Scott Warren was arrested at the barn. So, we see this as retaliation. It was very directly linked to the work that we were doing in uncovering Border Patrol misconduct and violence. And we’re now being targeted for it.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people die in the desert, Paige?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: That’s a really hard question. We know that every year hundreds of people’s bodies are found, but we know also, just the nature of the southern Arizona desert and the terrain and how remote some of these areas are, how far they are, a lot of people who die in the desert are never found. So, in 2017, when we really started doing more work on Cabeza Prieta, there were 32 bodies found, many of those by our volunteers and other humanitarian aid organizations. But we also know of many other cases that are unresolved, where we know somebody was in the area of Cabeza Prieta and was never seen again.

What’s notable, as well, is that Cabeza Prieta has really, really limited access, so some of the times that we’ve been able to really get out into the wilderness and deep in there, we’ve had to actually do overnight hikes. And on some of those hikes, we have found up to three sets of remains in a single day. Cabeza has really limited access; we can barely get out there. But there is an area just north of there that is an active bombing range, that people are also being funneled to cross through. And that area has zero public access. So, you look on the maps of known migrant deaths, and there’s a lot of blank spots on the bombing range, and that we absolutely know that that is not because nobody is dying there, it’s because nobody is being found there. So, the numbers that we have are not really reflective of what’s truly happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Devereaux, you wrote a piece for The Intercept in October, “New Documents Bolster Case That Border Patrol Retaliated Against Humanitarian Group.” Tell us what you found, and then talk about all the cases today—it’s not all nine people who are going on trial today, four people are—and what each of their cases involved and what they face.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Right. It’s complicated. As you mentioned, there’s four people going on trial today, and those are four defendants in the Cabeza cases. So those defendants are basically being charged with violating rules on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, namely, trespassing onto designated wilderness and littering for leaving behind humanitarian aid supplies—food, water, etc. Four other Cabeza defendants will be heading to trial later with similar charges. Those individuals were involved in a rescue and recovery operation when they were cited for heading onto the refuge. And then, finally, there’s Scott Warren’s case, the felony case that you mentioned in the run-up, in which he’s charged with harboring and conspiracy.

These charges together sort of indicate a crackdown on No More Deaths and a crackdown on humanitarian aid work in the Arizona desert here, that began really as Trump was coming into office in April 2017. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions came down here to Arizona and basically told his prosecutors that he wanted to ramp up certain sets of charges, border-related charges, among them, harboring charges. Anybody with a nexus to moving people further into the United States was not only fair game; he wanted to see those kinds of cases brought.

And in filings that we’ve seen in the No More Deaths cases since then, we know that the Border Patrol started taking a hard look at No More Deaths around April, around the time of Sessions’ visit. The agency raided a camp that No More Deaths has used for, you know, more than a decade. It was a provocative action. And then there was this back-and-forth in the Ajo corridor in Cabeza Prieta over regulations and access to the refuge where No More Deaths was expanding its work, finding more and more human remains. By the end of 2017, these charges started to come in against volunteers for working on the refuge. And then, in January of last year, a year ago to this week, Warren was arrested on the day that this report came out.

Since that time, in the year that’s followed, we’ve seen a lot of activity in these cases. In pretrial motions, attorneys for No More Deaths have been arguing that these arrests, these prosecutions violated the religious freedom of the defendants. They’ve pushed the government to release documents related to Warren’s arrest, as I mentioned earlier.

And what we’re going to be seeing in the weeks ahead is a real sort of interrogation of what exactly has been going on, on the border. It’s important to keep in mind here that the sort of targeting of humanitarian aid on the border is part of a larger crackdown that the Trump administration has been orchestrating on the border. It extends to family separation. It extends to the sort of clogging of ports of entry for asylum seekers. So, you know, in these trials, there’s a ton at stake, and it all starts today.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ryan, the history of No More Deaths as an extension of the sanctuary movement of the ’80s, which actually continues today?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: That’s correct, Amy. In the 1980s here in southern Arizona, a collection of religious leaders, priests, nuns, etc., basically came together, using the Underground Railroad as a blueprint to move asylum seekers from Central America, who were fleeing U.S.-backed dirty wars there, into the United States, when they sort of discovered that the Reagan administration was illegally blocking access to asylum for those folks. The sort of reverberations of that can be felt today.

A massive government investigation, undercover investigation, was launched into the movement. The churches were infiltrated. Secret recordings were made of sermons. Religious leaders were indicted, charged, prosecuted, with some of the same charges that Scott Warren faces today—harboring, smuggling types of charges. It was a huge, sort of galvanizing moment that sort of gave birth to the humanitarian aid community that exists in southern Arizona today. So we’re seeing history repeat itself in many ways here in Tucson.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ryan Devereaux, I want to thank you for being with us, and we’ll link to your pieces at The Intercept at And Paige Corich-Kleim, thanks so much for joining us, humanitarian aid worker, volunteer with No More Deaths. Again, today, four No More Deaths volunteers are going on trial in Tucson, Arizona, and we’ll follow that trial.

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