By Hannah Hafter and Katie Ingegneri on January 28, 2019
In the United States in 2019, humanitarian aid has become a crime in the eyes of hardline judges enforcing inhumane immigration policies. The first four volunteers in the trial of the “Cabeza Nine” volunteers from No More Deaths / No Más Muertes (NMD), a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, were convicted of “abandonment of property” for leaving gallons of water in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge located in Arizona, and now each face a maximum of six months in prison and a $500 fine. A date for sentencing has not yet been set.
This was a frustrating and disheartening conclusion to the first of three trials the volunteers are facing for direct humanitarian aid since receiving citations in August 2017. One volunteer, Scott Warren, faces harboring and conspiracy felony charges for “human trafficking” after reportedly providing food and water to migrants crossing the desert. An investigation by The Intercept exposed a disturbing level of coordination between U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to target NMD and criminalize their humanitarian work.
The Cabeza Prieta and surrounding desert are one of the deadliest areas along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and hundreds of migrants have died or disappeared there. The map below shows where the volunteers were arrested, in relation to the location of the 155 known migrant deaths since 2001, in an area where countless more have disappeared.
The lethality of the desert is precisely why we took action with Love Resists, our anti-criminalization campaign in partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Association, in August 2018. “Faith Floods the Desert” brought over 50 interfaith leaders to leave water on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to reach those at risk of dying of dehydration during the hottest and deadliest time of the year, and to put ourselves on the line and risk the same charges as the NMD volunteers. Ultimately, we were not ticketed or charged. This is clear evidence that we are witnessing “selective prosecution,” as NMD volunteers face actual jail time for leaving gallons of water in the refuge, while others (such as actual litterers and CBP agents driving destructively on the refuge) are not.
The trials of the volunteers highlight the ongoing need to reassert our values in the face of unjust and cruel attacks on humanity, and poses the question of our willingness to put those values into action, even when facing bodily and legal consequences. Far from discouraging those who provide humanitarian aid, this verdict must inspire us to be more steadfast in our efforts to show up where we are most needed even when aware of possible consequences. As longtime NMD volunteer Catherine Gaffney put it, “This verdict challenges not only No More Deaths volunteers, but people of conscience throughout the country. If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?”
We urge you to sign on to the public statement of support for No More Deaths, because humanitarian aid should never be a crime.
Photo Credit: UUSC