In Tucson, Arizona, a US Magistrate handed guilty verdicts against four No More Deaths activists, who were leaving water for border crossers, along the US-Mexico border. The activist group calls the decision a retaliation for releasing an incriminating report about the Border Patrol. A fifth activist faces an upcoming trial and potentially decades in prison
NARRATOR: As part of the Trump administration’s ramping up of prosecution and anti immigration enforcement push, on January 18, four “No More Deaths” activists were found guilty of different charges. They were detained for being on Cabeza Prieta, a protected 860,000-acre refuge without a permit, and for trying to leave water for immigrants crossing the desert.
OSCAR LEON: We are outside the federal court building in Tucson, Arizona, where 4 NMD activists were prosecuted.
NARRATOR: The group’s driver, Natalie Hoffman, was declared guilty of operating a vehicle in a wilderness area, entering federal land without a permit and abandonment of property, while Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick were found guilty of two of those charges.
The defendants, who are still awaiting sentencing, face a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $250 fine each.
CATHERINE GAFFNEY: The prosecution’s call into question both the right to receive humanitarian aid, which everyone has the tight to, regardless of your documentation status. Everyone has the right to medical care and to food and water. “
NARRATOR: Catherine Gaffney is an activist for No More Deaths, a multifaith coalition group and a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.
She came as a volunteer and saw so much death and suffering that she moved to Tucson on 2011 to be a permanent volunteer for the organization.
CATHERINE GAFFNEY: Doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant or not. And it’s an attack on the right to give humanitarian aid, which is not only a human right, but it’s a principle of faith for people around the world.
NARRATOR: Activist Scott Warren, who is an Arizona State University instructor, awaits trial for charges involving harboring undocumented immigrants, which is considered a felony.
CATHERINE GAFFNEY: There is a pattern of targeting No More Deaths. These latest prosecutions really kicked off when we really started a report documenting thousands of incidents of border patrol destruction of water in the desert. So we believe there’s a pattern of retaliation here.
NARRATOR: Dan Millis, a former No More Deaths volunteer, was also found guilty of littering in 2008. The ruling was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010.
DAN MILLIS: Max and I and a couple of different volunteers with No More Deaths, we were approached by federal law enforcement officers. And they said, “What are you doing here.” We said, “Well, we’re leaving water for people in need.”
They said, “You can’t leave water because that’s littering.” And we said, “Littering? We’re not littering. We’re actually picking up garbage. If we find any garbage or trash on the ground we pick it up, and we put out fresh, clean bottles of sealed water and we keep track of it all. We write it down, we come back and check on it. And every time there’s an empty, we put a new one out and take the empty and recycle it.”
NARRATOR: No More Deaths began in 2004 as a coalition of community and faith groups trying to stop the deaths in the desert, which have been documented to be as high as 160 a year.
DAN MILLIS: In 2005, when Shaunti and Daniel were accused, they brought felony charges for again, I think it was a year and a half, two years. Those charges were finally dropped. Then I got prosecuted. My friend, Emeris Stanton, got prosecuted. Then Catherine Fergusson, who has since passed away.
CATHERINE GAFFNEY: It’s simply not possible to carry the amount of water that you would need. There are no natural water sources in that desert. There’s two or three wildlife stock tanks with pretty polluted water that isn’t very healthy to drink. Often leads to diarrhea and GI problems.
And on the day that the four volunteers were stopped by Fish and Wildlife, it was 110 degrees. So walking in 110-degree heat for three to five days with no natural water, it’s clear that that will mean death, if people aren’t able to find water to keep going.
NARRATOR: Anybody who has been around the Sonoran Desert understands how deadly it is. Not only does it have extreme weather in day and night, but also a great number of cactus that can make your life very difficult. You can get lost or you can fall into a ditch, hurt yourself and be left to die.
The main danger is the heat, and its chief assassin is a severe heat stroke.
DAN MILLIS: In 2008, when some No More Deaths volunteers and I were walking through a remote canyon in The Arizona – Sonora borderlands, we came across the body of someone who had died trying to cross the border.
And this person was actually very young. She was only 14 years old when she died, and her name was Joseline and she had been crossing from El Salvador, trying to reunite with her mother in LA.
She had already traveled through Central America, through all of Mexico, and had come to the point in her journey where she was walking across the border with her little brother who was, I guess, 10 years old at the time. And they were being led by the coyote.
She became sick, she couldn’t keep up with the group. She told her little brother to keep going and to reunite with their mother, which he was able to do. But no one ever saw Joseline alive again that we know of after that.
We have actually been victorious in the courts in defending our humanitarian aid, since 2005, so we are going to continue with that success.
Not only are human rights being violated but people are being killed. Whether they’re dying in our deserts, dying in detention, dying after they’ve been deported and delivered back into the hands of the gang members they’re trying to escape. It’s just murder and it’s wrong, just like slavery was wrong.
CATHERINE GAFFNEY: What we saw this week was criminalization of being able to put out water in the West desert in a corridor where hundreds of people have died and countless more disappeared in the last five years.
We’re really concerned by the judge’s ruling that seems to prohibit being able to put out water in an area where people are dying of thirst.
We think that there should be respect to the preservation of life put ahead of targeting of humanitarian need by government. And what we’ve really seen in the West desert is a clear pattern of targeting with No More Deaths, specifically we saw them re-write their permit in 2016 to forbid human humanitarian aid on the Cabeza Prieta refuge.
The policy of prevention through deterrents, which is the official border policy of the United States. It was adopted in 1994 when NAFTA was enacted and the strategy is to make the crossing through the border so deadly that it will deter people from migrating.
It had not in any way deterred people who are fleeing for their lives from crossing through the desert. One of No More Death’s core demands is for an end to prevention through deterrents. It is the cause of the thousands, more than 7,000 lives lost on the border.
OSCAR LEóN: The verdict seems to confirm what many had feared: that the Trump administration is using the Arizona desert as a weapon. Deterrence by death.
For The Real News, from Tucson, Arizona, this is Oscar León.