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Migrant aid workers face arrests and prosecutions

More than 3,000 undocumented migrants have died in Arizona during the last 20 years while trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico, spurring the formation of aid groups along the border that aim to prevent the humanitarian crisis. Now, some aid workers are facing criminal charges due to renewed enforcement of harboring laws that say good Samaritans are breaking the law. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    This week, a humanitarian aid worker goes on trial in Arizona for allegedly harboring two undocumented migrants who entered the country illegally. The charges fall under U.S. "harboring laws" which prohibit people from concealing or shielding any unauthorized individuals who come into and remain in the United States.

    But migrant rights advocates in Arizona say the enforcement of these laws is wholly political and is being used to push an anti-immigrant agenda, discouraging good Samaritan efforts along the border.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • Paige Corich-Kleim:

    This one says, "vaya con la fuerza de Dios," which means "go with the strength of god."

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    On a 90-degree day in early September, Paige Corich-Kleim and Maria Rodriguez set out into Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge on a mission. There they left canned food, water and socks for any migrants traveling from Mexico into the u.s. Through this difficult terrain.

  • Paige Corich-Kleim:

    When it's this hot and people are traveling the distances that they are, dehydration is an issue, but also hyponatremia, which is a salt and electrolyte imbalance. Things that might in like an everyday hike not be a big deal a blister, out here can be deadly. 'Cause they result in people not being able to keep up with their group and getting left behind.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Corich-Kleim and Rodriguez are both volunteers with the interfaith humanitarian organization called "No More Deaths." It aims to prevent the deaths of undocumented migrants attempting to enter the country on foot through Arizona's dangerous deserts.

  • Paige Corich-Kleim:

    We track all of the work that we do and make sure that we're looking at which drops are effective, and getting to people who need it, and which ones aren't.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    It's one of several organizations born in the last 20 years as a result of what the groups call a humanitarian crisis along the US-Mexico border. In that time, more than 7,500 migrants have died crossing the border, according to u.s. Border patrol statistics. Here in Arizona, more than 3,000 migrants have died in the desert, according to the pima county office of the medical examiner. The actual number of border deaths is unknown, because the figures only include cases reported to the authorities, and no one knows how many bodies have never been found.

  • Paige Corich-Kleim:

    The journey has gotten a lot longer and more difficult. Even in the last 10 years.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Corich-Kleim believes the rise in migrant deaths here is a direct result of a border enforcement strategy that began under president Clinton in 1994 called "prevention through deterrence". It more than tripled the manpower and infrastructure along the border and closed off traditional ports of entry closer to main roads and highways, rerouting migrants to some of the most barren areas of the desert.

  • Paige Corich-Kleim:

    A lot of our drops used to be really big and close to roads. And just consistently people are getting pushed into more and more remote corridors.

  •  Ivette Feliciano:

    In a press release last year, border patrol said there are 34 rescue beacons located throughout the Tucson sector, and that it rescued 750 people in fiscal year 2017.

    Volunteers with the group No More Deaths also go on search and rescue missions and document border enforcement activity. But the federal government says they're breaking the law. In recent years, several have had federal criminal charges brought against them. This year, four were convicted on misdemeanor criminal charges that stemmed from an encounter with a u.s. Fish and wildlife officer at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

    The charges included abandoning personal property, which federal regulations prohibit, and entering a protected wilderness area without a permit, something all visitors to the wilderness refuge must obtain and sign. 22-year-old Zaachila Orozco is one of those convicted.

  • Zaachila Orozco:

    We did not have permits because we did not agree with the clause that indicated that one could not leave food and water and other supplies in the desert because, to us, that infringed on the humanitarian aid work that we were providing that is necessary.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    What was your reaction when you heard "federal charges"?

  • Zaachila Orozco:

    A little ludicrous? I don't know. I mean, the very beginning, the prosecution was pushing for maximum penalties. Which included six months in federal prison per each charge. And $5,000 per charge.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told PBS Newshour Weekend in an email that "all visitors… are required and expected to adhere to federal laws and regulations while visiting refuge lands."

    A federal magistrate judge ordered Orozco and her three co-defendants to each pay a $250 fine and sentenced them to 15 months of unsupervised probation. They are all currently appealing the decision.

  • John Fife:

    This is not something new.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    It's a situation that reverend john Fife–a co-founder of No More Deaths–is familiar with.

  • John Fife:

    This is the latest attempt– after a long– history of threats and attempts to– convict of us various– so-called crimes for providing humanitarian aid out there.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    He says since 2005, several No More Deaths volunteers have faced felony charges for transporting undocumented migrants, and criminal misdemeanors for leaving food and water in the desert.

  • John Fife:

    We have that responsibility under the law and under International Red Cross standards. The International Red Cross Code of Conduct says, clearly, everyone, everyone has the right to provide humanitarian aid in an– in an area of disaster like this, where thousands of people have died.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Fife was arrested back in 1985 after his congregation became the first religious institution in the U.S. to offer sanctuary to migrants who faced deportation.

  • John Fife:

    A real bunch of desperados– there were two Catholic priests and three nuns and the director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council and myself who were charged with various felony crimes.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Among other charges, Fife and some of his co-defendants were eventually found guilty of transporting and concealing undocumented migrants.

    33 years later, in January of 2018, No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren was arrested on similar charges, for allegedly harboring and shielding two undocumented migrants from law enforcement at the group's base-camp in Ajo, Arizona. Fife contends warren was simply providing humanitarian aid in keeping with No More Deaths protocol.

  • John Fife:

    He gave food and water and some medical care to two migrants who just showed up at our basecamp.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But in court documents, federal prosecutors disputed that claim, arguing that warren "did not provide medical attention, nor were the people associated with the charges in distress". They also said he was quote: "not required by his beliefs to aid in the evasion of law enforcement."

    Warren's first trial ended in a mistrial after jurors couldn't reach a verdict, but federal prosecutors will seek to retry him this week on two felony harboring charges. He declined an interview for this story due to the pending trial.

  • Margo Cowan:

    The enforcement effort always depends on what the political context is and the messaging.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Longtime migrant rights advocate and lawyer Margo Cowan says she's represented dozens of humanitarian aid workers who have faced criminal charges. We interviewed her at a migrant legal aid clinic that she supervises for No More Deaths in Tucson.

  • Margo Cowan:

    We have gone through periods where the us attorney has said to his clients, the land managers and the border patrol, "don't cite these people. Don't– don't bring these cases to me. Because we're not going to prosecute them."

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Arrests of people who provide aid to migrants have been on the rise since 2015, and spiked in 2017 when then-attorney general Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to prioritize cases covered under the harboring statute.

    In fiscal year 2019, there were close to 4,000 convictions for "bringing in and harboring certain aliens", a 34% rise compared to five years ago, according to data from Syracuse University.

  • Margo Cowan:

    So, the idea to prosecute Scott sends a message to the larger community, "if you see somebody lying beside the road, you can't stop and help them, because it might be a felony." I mean, there's all sorts of levels of communication that go on in these kinds of prosecutions, not just directed at the volunteer.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    John Fife believes border patrol agents targeted No More Deaths because of a report the group published on the morning of Scott Warren's arrest. It included video allegedly showing agents destroying gallons of water they'd left for travelers in the desert, an act the group says the border patrol frequently performs.

  • John Fife:

    We released that report and sent a copy to the border patrol at 8:00 in the morning. By 4:00 in the afternoon, agents had raided our base camp and charged Scott Warren with felony charges.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    U.S. Customs and border protection did not respond to PBS Newshour Weekend's requests for an interview or written statement for this report.

    Despite the legal challenges facing No More Deaths and other groups, Fife believes that the U.S. Government's actions will do more to help their cause than hinder it.

  • John Fife:

    Everybody who's doing humanitarian aid work globally to save lives– we have a responsibility to them to maintain our right to provide humanitarian aid. So, the charges have really– galvanized an international awareness of the basic human right– to provide humanitarian aid under these circumstances.

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