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No More Deaths: Scott Warren & Catherine Gaffney on How Humanitarian Aid Is Criminalized Near Border

Web ExclusiveMay 29, 2019
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Web-only conversation with Scott Warren and Catherine Gaffney of No More Deaths. Warren heads to trial today in Tucson, Arizona, for providing food, water and shelter to two undocumented migrants. He faces up to 20 years in prison. Amnesty International has called for the charges to be dropped.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, a humanitarian aid volunteer in Arizona is heading to trial today for providing food, water and shelter to two undocumented migrants. Scott Warren of Ajo, Arizona, faces up to 20 years in prison after being charged with three felony counts for allegedly harboring undocumented migrants. Scott Warren is a geographer who volunteers with No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans, two southern Arizona-based humanitarian aid organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International has written a letter to the U.S. attorney in Arizona calling for the charges to be dropped against Scott Warren, saying they’re, quote, “an unjust criminalization of direct humanitarian assistance, which run counter to the encouragement of the US Congress to the US Border Patrol to prohibit 'any activity by agents that could damage water and food caches and continued support for initiatives focused on increasing migration safety.'” The letter goes on to say, “No one should die while attempting to migrate, and no one deserves to be punished for working to prevent those deaths.”

We continue our conversation with Scott Warren and Catherine Gaffney, both members of No More Deaths, as they join us from Tucson, Arizona.

Scott, how did you come to this day? You live in Ajo, Arizona. Talk about where you grew up and how you came to join No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans.

SCOTT WARREN: Well, I moved to Arizona about 10 years ago to begin work on my Ph.D. in geography, and I was generally interested in the Mexico-U.S. border region. And through various travels and getting to know the region as a whole, I was really drawn to this community of Ajo, which is in southwestern Arizona bordering Mexico and also the Tohono O’odham indigenous nation. And so, it’s really kind of a triple cultural borderland in that sense. And academically, I was really drawn into the place, because it sort of contained everything of the border in that one community.

But then there was also something about that place that drew me in that was more intangible. Something really captivated me about it, and I found myself visiting and then found myself moving there in 2013 full time, and I’ve been living in Ajo ever since. I finished my dissertation and then became really involved in the direct humanitarian work through No More Deaths, Samaritans and a variety of other organizations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Catherine, I wanted to ask you to maybe expand a little bit on something that Scott mentioned before, this expansion of the border control industry. I’m wondering if you’ve been able to see, in the 10 years that you’ve been working at this humanitarian work, the—any changes in how the Border Patrol deals with migrants, specifically since the Trump administration came into office, and whether there has—what kind of marked change you’ve been able to notice in how the Border Patrol relates to the aid organizations, as well as to the migrants themselves. Or has it been basically the same Border Patrol throughout?

CATHERINE GAFFNEY: No, you’re right. There has been a marked change, Juan, in the last few years. So, I first met Scott in 2014, when No More Deaths began to expand our work to the Ajo corridor, and that was in response to really seeing an uptick and growing trend in the pattern of crossings and the pattern of migrant deaths shifting westward towards the West Desert surrounding Ajo. And so, first of all, going out to the Ajo area, the vastness of that desert is really hard to describe, but the journey through there is at least 80 miles through desert with nearly no water sources, and the last 20 miles of it cross an active bombing range. So this is really the continued escalation of the Border Patrol “prevention through deterrence” strategy, which aims to force people to cross the border through the most dangerous and remote areas furthest from help.

And this escalation in making the migrant journey more and more treacherous also coincided with an increase of attacks on humanitarian aid providers. So, in June 2017, No More Deaths’ long-standing humanitarian aid facility in Arivaca, Arizona, Byrd Camp, was raided in a paramilitary-style operation with more than 30 armed Border Patrol agents, supported by helicopter, ATVs, 15 trucks, all to arrest four undocumented people who were receiving medical care during a heat wave of over 110 degrees. And Border Patrol had tracked those four individuals for more than a day, until they arrived at the No More Deaths camp, in order to arrest them there.

So, we’ve really seen an uptick in this sort of targeted escalation, and it seems that not only is the Trump administration interested in making it a death sentence to cross the border, but also, you know, is trying to fundamentally deny the right of everyone to receive medical care, food and water, regardless of their paperwork status, and of people of conscience to be able to respond and provide that care.

AMY GOODMAN: Catherine, you drop off water almost every day in the Sonoran Desert?

CATHERINE GAFFNEY: That’s right. We’re out there every day. And to be honest, we’ve seen a real increase in interest in volunteering with us since these prosecutions. I think that nationwide there is a trend of ICE and Border Patrol, and now Department of Justice, going after undocumented leadership and people of conscience who are in solidarity with undocumented communities. And this sort of escalation of attacks on activists is a ramping up of this long-standing war on migrant lives, but it’s really resulted, I think, in a lot of attention being paid to what’s happening on the border and an upsurge in responses of people who want to come out and work in solidarity.

So, we’re maintaining our efforts. Every day, we go out and place food and water on migrant trails. We search for those who have gone missing, and we talk to the families whose loved ones are missing in the borderlands. And, in fact, one day recently, during Scott’s misdemeanor trial, our volunteers encountered, just in one day, the remains of four different migrants who lost their lives in the desert outside of Ajo.

So, it is really striking that not only is there this repression of the right of people to receive food, water and medical care, to provide food, water and medical care, but it’s really striking that they’re going after humanitarian aid work in the Ajo area, because so many of the deaths that are being reported are being found by humanitarian aid volunteers. So the fact that now they’re trying to suppress humanitarian aid workers from going out into the desert is really chilling. It suggests not only that people will be left to die, but that their deaths will go unfound, and the true scope of this crisis will go unrecorded.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott, how has your arrest, from January 17, 2018, until today—you know, a year and a third—changed your work? Has it affected what you do? Has it prevented you from doing the things you used to do?

SCOTT WARREN: I think my arrest has really created a lot of conversation, is the main thing, in my community of Ajo, where humanitarian aid has always been provided. Long before I lived there or there was a No More Deaths or a Samaritans presence, local residents were doing this kind of work, perhaps not in as organized a way as a group like No More Deaths, but they were certainly doing this kind of work. And so it’s opened up a lot of conversation around that and people sharing their own stories, which has been a really beautiful thing and a really heartening thing.

Certainly, we have faced different forms of—or, different efforts, really, by the government to curtail our work, as Catherine was just talking about. My arrest is one, but also, you know, citations for various things related to the management of the public lands in this area and the prosecutions, you know, for abandonment of property, for leaving jugs of water and food on these—in these places where people have died previously in the desert.

But really, I think this changes little, in the sense that every day in the border region migrants, refugees, people who are coming across the border, who are coming through the desert, who are suffering, who are at risk of dying, are knocking on people’s doors, and they’re in need of water, and they’re in need of food. They’re in need of basic medical care and basic necessities. And people all across the border region are continuing to respond by offering these folks a glass of water, by offering them some rest or some food. And, frankly, I don’t see that changing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Scott, you also mentioned that, clearly, Arizona has one of the highest percentages of Native indigenous populations of any state in the country. I’m wondering the attitude or the response of the Native nations to the migrants and to the federal crackdown on them, whether you’ve been noticing or seen how they’ve been responding to these federal efforts.

SCOTT WARREN: Well, our friends in the O’odham community in southern Arizona, who will be speaking later today about some of these things, you can hear them in their own words. Our neighbors who are in the O’odham community, the Native community, the way that it appears to me, being an outsider, is that it really is a long—a long story of conquest and dispossession and colonialism and violence that Native people are facing, really all across Arizona, of course, and especially southern Arizona and in the border region. And that’s an old story.

And that, the violence and dispossession, really continues, and in an explicit way, where, for instance, in both my town of Ajo and on the adjacent Tohono O’odham Nation, the reservation, no one can leave without going through a Border Patrol immigration checkpoint, where you’re questioned as to your citizenship status. And based off of the work of our friends and colleagues in the town of Arivaca, we know that there is racial profiling happening at those checkpoints, and your skin color and other things also determine how many questions you’re asked and how long you’re detained at those checkpoints and all kinds of things. So, that’s just one example of this long, long legacy of dispossession and surveillance of Native people that, from my perspective as an outsider, seems really blatant and unjust.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott, you’re charged with harboring migrants. They arrested you at the community center, the volunteer center, the Barn. Are you charged with giving migrants water?

SCOTT WARREN: My charges are two counts of harboring, so one for—one count for each of the people that was arrested, and then a count of conspiracy to harbor and transport, are the charges. When I was arrested, in the charging document, the thing that really—the only thing that’s sort of outlined, the complaint against me, the criminal complaint against me, says that I had provided food, water, clean clothes and beds to these two people over the course of three days. So that’s what we’re going with. That’s what we go to court with today, is our understanding of the government’s case against me. And that’s what we are defending against in the coming week.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, really leads one to think about the question, WWJD—What would Jesus do?—if he were in the same situation. Scott, are you prepared to spend 20 years in prison?

SCOTT WARREN: I can’t imagine anybody being prepared for that, and I can’t say that I’m prepared for that. It’s a scary thing to face these charges, and it’s a particularly intense moment for me.

But I also really want to say that I have enormous support with the community here, with friends and people that support me and my family, and excellent legal representation and really a whole larger community that is supporting me and really carrying me through this. So, I don’t feel alone. And I also feel that support and see how, for undocumented folks in Arizona, across the country, those who are crossing the border, the two men that were arrested with me, have not and do not receive the same kind of support and attention that I’ve been getting. And that’s not lost on me, either. So, I’m grateful for it, and I hope that all could receive the kind of support that I’ve been getting.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Warren and Catherine Gaffney, we thank you so much for being with us. Scott Warren is a No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans volunteer. Catherine Gaffney, an activist, has volunteered with No More Deaths for a decade, drops off water almost every day in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Scott Warren goes to court today, a trial expected to last about eight days. He faces 20 years in prison for harboring people and for conspiracy.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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Scott Warren Provided Food & Water to Migrants in Arizona; He Now Faces Up to 20 Years in Prison

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