An Arizona humanitarian aid volunteer goes to trial today for providing water, food, clean clothes and beds to two undocumented migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. If convicted, Scott Warren could spend up to 20 years in prison. Warren, an activist with the Tucson-based No More Deaths, is charged with three felony counts of allegedly “harboring” undocumented immigrants. For years, No More Deaths and other humanitarian aid groups in southern Arizona have left water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert, where the temperature often reaches three digits during summer, to help refugees and migrants survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border. Warren was arrested on January 17, 2018, just hours after No More Deaths released a report detailing how U.S. Border Patrol agents had intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants crossing the border. The group also published a video showing border agents dumping out jugs of water in the desert. Hours after the report was published, authorities raided the Barn, a No More Deaths aid camp in Ajo, where they found two migrants who had sought temporary refuge. We speak with Scott Warren and his fellow No More Deaths volunteer and activist Catherine Gaffney in Tucson.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to southern Arizona, where a humanitarian aid volunteer 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. Warren is a geographer who volunteers with No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans, two southern Arizona-based humanitarian aid organizations. For years, the groups have left water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert to help refugees and migrants survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border.
AMY GOODMAN: Warren was arrested January 17, 2018, just hours after No More Deaths released a report detailing how U.S. border agents had intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants crossing the border. The group also published a video showing border agents dumping out jugs of water in the desert. Hours after the report was published, authorities raided Warren’s home in Ajo, where they found two migrants who had sought temporary refuge. Amnesty International and other human rights groups are now calling for the charges to be dropped against Warren.
In a moment, Scott Warren will join us from Tucson, but first I want to turn to a short documentary by Laura Saunders for The Intercept about the work of humanitarian aid workers, including Warren, on the border. It’s titled “Let Them Have Water.”
MIMI PHILLIPS: We savor our desert, but this desert, right around our town, where we recreate, held 57 bodies, 57 remains of human beings, last year. Fifty-seven. Do you find remains in your parks, in your golf courses, in your neighborhood playgrounds? What would that make you feel like?
UNIDENTIFIED: May the spirits of our brothers and sisters walk in beauty for eternity. Thank you, creator.
SCOTT WARREN: I am Scott Warren, and I’m a geographer. And I have lived in Ajo for about six years now. The moment that really changed for me, got me involved in a big way, was moving here to Ajo and just experiencing the border in a more visceral way, being here in the summer, running into people in the desert who had walked across the desert and were in need of water, meeting other folks who were doing humanitarian aid. It just seemed like, if not the most important, one of the most important issues facing this place. For me to not be involved in that would be like not being fully engaged and fully present in this place.
So, groups like No More Deaths and Samaritans, Humane Borders, Aguilas del Desierto and the Armadillos, for instance, have all provided humanitarian aid and done search and rescue in different ways here in the desert. We went from finding human remains every other month to like finding five sets of human remains on a single trip hiking through the Growler Valley and then going back a week later and finding two more sets of remains, and then, on a single day of searching, finding like eight sets of remains and bodies of people who had died in adjacent areas of the bombing range and on Cabeza Prieta. So just this like scale of this crisis, of the humanitarian crisis and the missing persons crisis, just blew wide open.
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: My name is César Ortigoza, and I’m the president of Armadillos Search and Rescue. We’ve been doing this for almost six years. We’re proud in our sticking together for a long time, you know? This work is really necessary for the families that are in need of our help.
OFFICER: What’s going on, guys?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Yeah, we’re going to La Muela right now.
OFFICER: Oh, La Muela? La Muela?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: La Muela, yeah. We’re searching for a guy that was left out there.
OFFICER: Oh, you’re searching for a body?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Yeah, uh-huh.
OFFICER: Is it just one that you know of? Or…
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Yeah. Well, there is three, actually.
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: You know, but one of them is the more recent. We hope to find him today.
It’s really grateful to have all these people, these volunteers, because we might belong to different families, we might not even be related to each other, but inside here we have to be a family, you know?
ARMADILLOS SEARCH AND RESCUE MEMBER: [translated] In your hands, Lord, we ask this morning that you help us reach the place where the people that need your help are. Father, we ask this so that we can help them, as it is the mission we carry in our hearts.
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: We just have to be realistic and know that we have to be strong. You know, even though it breaks our hearts to find these remains, we have to be strong and keep on going, you know, because, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do this job. About three months ago, we found the remains from a little boy or girl, probably 5, 6 years old. And it’s really sad to think what they had to go through and how they died. And knowing that their families won’t be able to see them anymore, it’s really, really hard. But we have to keep on doing it. You know, it’s really necessary.
ARMADILLOS SEARCH AND RESCUE MEMBER: [translated] Do you have it in your hand?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Our responsibility is just to give them the coordinates. And once they have it, that’s really up to them if they come over and get him.
SCOTT WARREN: In January of 2018, I was arrested by Border Patrol and charged with harboring. In the Border Patrol criminal complaint against me, they said that I was providing food, water, beds and clean clothes to two men, and so they charged me with harboring. Went through Border Patrol custody and then appeared in front of a judge and was released on my own recognizance. And that was over a year ago, and we’ve been engaged in various legal proceedings leading up to a potential trial sometime later this year.
MIMI PHILLIPS: I’m Mimi Phillips. I moved to Ajo about 15 years ago. And about eight or nine years ago, a group of us began a small version of the Samaritans here. I guess every time I look at Scott, I think of my own son. And it’s unconscionable to think that he’s been charged with felonies for doing what, as a parent, I would be so proud of what he had done. And I know his parents are proud.
SCOTT WARREN: People have always crossed in the Ajo area. People have always been walking through the desert. People have always been finding ways to come here through the desert. But what happened is it was turned into a major industrial-scale operation in the 1990s and early 2000s, as they really pushed people out into places like these, in these deserts and mountains. What had been really a small-scale thing, local organizations that move people and goods through the desert, a small handful of Border Patrol agents that might go out and try to interdict people or might be involved in finding people who had died, or local residents who would respond to people who needed food and water, that all just completely mushroomed into this massive, massive industry.
MIMI PHILLIPS: You reach a point where you say, “Enough. You know, whatever the consequences are, enough.”
Drivers with permits should come together to be able to approach law enforcement. And everyone else…
How many more bodies? It’s just not OK. You know, we’re here, and we will leave the water. And we are a real community that isn’t a scary place to live.
SCOTT WARREN: I think one important thing is that people here in Ajo and other local communities on the border have always been providing humanitarian aid and have always responded to people being in need. People here have, you know, provided food and water to folks who are crossing the desert who are in desperate condition. They have responded to rescue people who are in the desert. They have found and recovered the bodies and the bones of people who have died in the desert. So, that’s been going on for forever, basically, and has been a fact of life for people who live here.
JOSÉ CASTILLO: Buenas tardes.
CROWD: Buenas tardes.
JOSÉ CASTILLO: I want to start off by saying who I am. I’m José Castillo, and I’ve been around here for almost 80 years. We honor these individuals today with the reading of their names. Please respond with ”presente” when the name is called. No es conocido.
AMY GOODMAN: “Let Them Have Water,” a short documentary by Laura Saunders for The Intercept. When we come back, we go to Tucson to speak with Scott Warren, who was arrested in January of 2018 in Ajo, Arizona. He goes on trial today. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Julieta Venegas. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re joined now in Tucson, Arizona, by Scott Warren, the humanitarian aid volunteer who’s heading to trial today for providing aid to two undocumented migrants. He faces up to 20 years in prison after being charged with three felony counts for allegedly harboring undocumented migrants. He was arrested in January 2018 at a location called the Barn, which was used by humanitarian volunteers. Warren is a geographer who volunteers with No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined in Tucson by another member of No More Deaths, Catherine Gaffney.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Scott, why don’t you lay out what happened on that day in January 2018, when you were at the Barn, as well as other volunteers? Explain who exactly raided and what happened to you there.
SCOTT WARREN: Thanks. I was at the Barn, which is a property in Ajo. It’s used by a variety of—excuse me—humanitarian groups that stage from that property to go out in the desert and put out water and do search and rescue and that sort of thing.
On that day in January of 2018, we were preparing for a group of high school students to arrive, who were going to volunteer to do some of this humanitarian work. It’s a pretty common thing, that student groups will volunteer. And on that day, a couple of Border Patrol agents had set up surveillance kind of across the way from the Barn in an area where they could kind of watch what was happening there. And at some point, they said that they saw me speaking with two men who they somehow determined to be illegally present in the United States.
And so, they set up kind of an operation to raid the Barn, through what they called a knock-and-talk operation. And so, about 5:30, late in the afternoon, early evening, a kind of a convoy of Border Patrol and sheriff’s deputy vehicles entered the Barn, the property there, and at that point I had informed them that they were on private property, and they didn’t have a right to be there. And they persisted and sort of went to the entrance of the Barn. And by the time I kind of arrived at the entrance, where they were kind of looking inside the building, they had already had these two men, who were, they determined to be, illegally present in the country, and they were sort of detaining them. And then, at that point, they informed me that they were going to arrest me and that I was being arrested for harboring.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Scott, I wanted to ask you about this—most people who are not familiar with your part of the country don’t realize that the Arizona desert area is the most deadly place for migrants. And about, what, 38 to 40% of all the deaths along the border occur in the desert areas of Arizona?
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah. Arizona, along with South Texas, are two of the worst areas, really, where we’re finding the most—the highest numbers of people who have died crossing the border. Those numbers that you reference are really disturbing, but they’re just the numbers of bodies and human remains that we have found in the desert. So, we assume that there are many more.
All across Arizona, there are many people who die in the desert, who have died in the desert. The particular area where I live, often called the Ajo corridor, is in southwestern Arizona, and it’s particularly brutal. Many, many people have died there. And this is the area on parts of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and in Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry Goldwater bombing range, where we have increasingly been finding many, many bodies and bones of people who have died while crossing the desert.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And ironically, southern Arizona, it was really the center of the copper industry, the state of Arizona, for the entire United States. And for decades, migrant Mexicans, from Mexico, were the ones who worked in many of these mines, weren’t they? And they were legal then to come and work in the mines, but now are suddenly considered, in recent decades, illegal to be able to come into the country.
SCOTT WARREN: That’s a really interesting point that you bring up. Where I live, Ajo, it’s a former copper mining town, a former company town. Everything was controlled by the company. Everybody who came in and went out sort of had to be vetted by the company. Throughout much of the 20th century, particularly early in the 20th century, it was really these copper companies that determined who came and who went. And they were the ones that sort of dictated the nature of the border and sort of who was allowed to be there.
So it’s really fascinating to me to look at how, even though so much has changed—you know, my town is no longer a copper mining town. The mine closed in the '80s. It's very much a postindustrial economy. But in that void, the postindustrial void, we’ve had this massive growth of the border security industry. It’s enormous, enormous across southern Arizona, across all of the border. And by all measures, it looks like it’s going to continue growing.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Warren, let’s talk about the timing of the raid in January of 2018, just hours after No More Deaths, your organization, released a report detailing how U.S. border agents had intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants crossing the border. The group also published a video that showed border agents dumping out jugs of water in the desert. Explain the significance of this, the timing, that same day.
SCOTT WARREN: This was a report released by No More Deaths on the morning that I was arrested. And the report was the second in a series of reports called “The Disappeared” series. And this particular report looked at how humanitarian aid supplies left in the desert were being destroyed by Border Patrol agents. And there was a whole report that was associated with that and a pretty detailed analysis, that you mentioned. The things that really went viral were a couple of those videos, the trail cam videos and others, that showed agents destroying water and dumping out water.
So, this happened on the morning of my arrest. And through various measures now, we’ve learned more of that story. But the report was released that morning, and then agents set up surveillance on the Barn that afternoon and then arrested me that evening.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d also like to ask Catherine Gaffney—you’re a volunteer with No More Deaths. Could you talk about the crackdown on people who are trying to assist some of the migrants for humanitarian purposes? I think Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse revealed in a report that there’s been a 30% increase since 2015 in the number of people arrested annually allegedly for harboring or assisting undocumented migrants. But that’s nationwide. What have you been seeing?
CATHERINE GAFFNEY: That’s right. And this is really a somber moment for us, as we go to trial today. Scott is being prosecuted for, as you mentioned, providing food, water, clean clothes and beds to two people who asked him for help. So, what we’ve seen in No More Deaths recently is really an escalation of a long-standing war on the lives of undocumented migrants and undocumented communities in this country. The crisis of deaths and disappearances on the border has been ongoing. There’s more than 7,000 known deaths in the last two decades, and, as Scott said, that’s a vast undercounting of the true number of people who have died or gone missing. But what we’ve really seen in the last several years is a ramping up of attacks, not only directly on the lives of undocumented people crossing through the border, but also on those who make it their work to stop and help people and try to prevent these deaths and suffering.
And that’s not only through humanitarian aid groups such as No More Deaths and in many other search-and-rescue and humanitarian aid groups that work in the borderlands, but, frankly, on the daily lives of many people in the borderlands for whom it’s a normal occurrence for someone to come knock on your door asking for a glass of water or asking for help. So, when we see the expansion of the harboring statutes to criminalize such basic acts of human care, it’s really a concerning interpretation of those statutes. It sort of leads to the conclusion that, you know, if you’re sitting down at the table with your family member who is undocumented and has a different status than you, do you need to check their papers before you pass them the bread? If you invite a neighbor over for a barbecue, you know, do you need to set up a checkpoint before you can share food or water with them?
AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, I wanted to ask Scott—you go on trial today. Amnesty has called for all charges to be dropped. The judge has refused to drop the charges. Your defense today?
SCOTT WARREN: Well, we’ll be really, over the coming week and a half, really outlining our case about the necessity and the need for humanitarian aid, and the clear—the clear right, morally, ethically, spiritually and legally, to give and receive humanitarian aid anywhere, and particularly in the borderland region. So, that’s what we’re putting forth—
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both, but we’re going to continue with Part 2 at democracynow.org. Scott Warren, on trial today, with No More Deaths, and Catherine Gaffney, activist and volunteer with No More Deaths, thank you so much for joining us from Tucson. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.