It is the job of U.S. Border Patrol agents to capture people crossing into the country illegally. In Arizona this month, they chose another target: one of the many volunteers who provide food, water and other supplies aimed at helping migrants survive in the desert.
Scott Warren, 35, a faculty associate at Arizona State University and longtime volunteer with aid group No More Deaths, was arrested Jan. 17 near the town of Ajo and charged in federal court with felony alien smuggling.
“This is really an escalation in the criminalization of humanitarian aid work,” said Lee Sandusky, a volunteer with the group, which this week publicized the arrest. “We’ve long had a tenuous relationship with Border Patrol and other agencies in the borderlands, and there seems to be an uptick in the targeting of humanitarian aid work in the past year.”
The arrest comes a month after federal officials filed a range of misdemeanor charges against nine volunteers from the same group for leaving plastic jugs of water in the desert.
Several groups routinely leave aid for migrants along the southern border from California to Texas. Volunteers say their goal is to save migrant lives, not break the law.
No More Deaths has attracted dozens of volunteers, many from out of state, since its founding in 2004.
The group largely avoided clashes with the Border Patrol, which has long had a policy of not disturbing vital supplies left for migrants. Officials said they encourage aid groups to file complaints if the policy is violated.
But Sandusky said Border Patrol supervisors have been reluctant to punish agents even when volunteers showed them videos of misconduct.
“There is no means to hold these agents accountable, which is part of the reason for the report,” Sandusky said.
The report said that more than 3,586 gallon jugs of water left for migrants had been destroyed in an 800-square-mile area in southern Arizona between 2012 and 2015. Videos posted with the report on Facebook drew nearly 700,000 views.
“Hundreds of vandalism acts cannot be dismissed as the misguided behavior of a few bad apples,” the report said. “The culture and policies of the U.S. Border Patrol as a law-enforcement agency both authorize and normalize acts of cruelty against border crossers.”
Warren was arrested hours after the report was released.
Agents were surveilling a building known as “the Barn,” saw what they believed to be two immigrants entering, and intervened, according to the federal criminal complaint. The men identified themselves as Mexican nationals and told the agents they knew there would be food and water inside because they researched their route online, looking for “the best ways and methods to cross the border illegally,” the complaint said.
“Warren met them outside and gave them food and water for approximately three days,” it said. One of the migrants, Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, told the agents that Warren “took care of them in ‘the Barn’ by giving them food, water, beds and clean clothes.”
Warren is free while he awaits trial. No date has been set.
William Walker, an attorney for No More Deaths, said Warren did nothing illegal.
“Everyone knows this building,” he said. “Border Patrol has watched it for years. They know it’s used as a medical facility, for people to get respite, get an IV and food. Just providing food and water and medical care is not a crime.”
“It’s if you hide them,” he said. “Scott didn’t hide them.”
A Border Patrol spokesman denied that the agency targeted Warren or the aid group.
“It’s not retaliation,” said Steven Passement, the agency’s acting special operations supervisor in Tucson. “We have a mission to do. If we’re focusing on the same folks, obviously we’re going to cross paths. We have tried to work with the groups out here. They want to save lives; we want to save lives. Intentionally targeting them and looking at them — that’s not what we’re doing.”
Along the Arizona frontier, the Border Patrol maintains a system of 34 rescue beacons, some paired with satellite phones, to aid migrants stranded in remote areas.
Passement said water left for migrants in the desert will never be enough to sustain them and instead “is giving them false hope.”