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Opinion: Raid on humanitarian group No More Deaths suggests government retaliation at the border

A No More Deaths rally in Tucson in March 2019.
Volunteers and supporters of No More Deaths march in Tucson in March 2019.
(Los Angeles Times)

As the sun set over the Sonoran Desert on Friday, U.S. Border Patrol agents geared up to raid a migrant aid camp in Arizona run by a faith-based organization called No More Deaths. Dressed in camouflage, the agents approached Byrd Camp — named for the 96-year-old children’s book author Byrd Baylor, who has allowed No More Deaths to operate on her property since the organization was founded — with rifles, an armored vehicle, three ATVs, two helicopters and a film crew.

Their goal? To arrest 30-plus undocumented immigrants who were receiving first aid and sheltering from the 110-degree heat. The agents also handcuffed No More Deaths volunteers with zip-ties, confiscated cellphones and medical records, and allegedly disconnected power to the well — the only water source available in the remote desert camp.

This was not the first time No More Deaths has been raided. The humanitarian group, which provides water, food and medical care to migrants who make the dangerous trek across the Sonoran Desert, has frequently run afoul of Border Patrol. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents previously raided the camp in 2017, arresting four migrants who were receiving first aid. The agency calls this law enforcement; No More Deaths called it a violation of international Red Cross standards.

It’s important here to give some context to the situation in southern Arizona. The region of the Sonoran Desert where No More Deaths operates is one of the harshest environments in the world. Temperatures can reach 120 degrees on a summer day and drop below freezing on a winter night. More than 7,000 people have died crossing the border in the last 20 years. The number of deaths skyrocketed when the United States beefed up security in border cities in 1994, funneling desperate migrants through the most dangerous regions of the southern border — a policy known, ghoulishly, as “prevention through deterrence.” The name “No More Deaths” is not hyperbole, metaphor or an empty PR move. It is the group’s basic mission.

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In addition to the raids, No More Deaths volunteers have frequently been arrested and prosecuted for crimes including littering (placing water drums in the desert), transporting “illegal aliens” (driving injured migrants to a medical camp), operating a vehicle in a nature reserve (serving a region that includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge) and harboring (giving food and shelter to undocumented migrants).

These arrests have increased dramatically under the Trump administration. In a high-profile case last year, No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren was found not guilty of felony harboring and conspiracy after he was arrested in 2018 for giving two men from Central America food, water and a place to sleep. Warren, who initially faced up to 20 years in prison, had the case hanging over his head for almost two years; his first trial ended in a hung jury, prompting federal prosecutors to try him again with a focus on the conspiracy charge.

Despite prosecutors’ lack of success in securing or maintaining convictions against its members, the group continues to be targeted. The timing of several legal actions suggests a pattern of retaliation and harassment; both Warren’s 2018 arrest and Friday’s raid took place soon after No More Deaths released embarrassing information about the Border Patrol.

Warren was arrested just hours after the group published a report on the Border Patrol’s interference with humanitarian aid efforts (including a video of Customs and Border Protection agents destroying water and other supplies the group had placed in the desert). The Friday raid came just days after the group published emails — obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request — documenting the role of Customs and Border Protection’s tactical unit (akin to a SWAT team) and the Border Patrol Union in the 2017 raid. “The message is clear: Expose Border Patrol abuses, face retaliation,” wrote No More Deaths in a news release Saturday.

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No More Deaths is just one of a number of humanitarian groups providing aid to migrants in the southwestern borderlands. But it is, perhaps, the most daring. Humanitarian aid is legal, but under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, transporting or in any way “encouraging” undocumented immigrants is not. Other organizations such as Humane Borders, the Tucson Samaritans and San Diego’s Water Station provide water without delving as deeply into the tricky legal area of offering medical care — or criticizing Border Patrol quite as loudly.

No More Deaths, however, has made documenting and exposing “patterns of abuse” by the Border Patrol a core part of its activities. The group has published three reports documenting abusive behavior in short-term Border Patrol custody, and is currently at work on the third installment in an extensive project, titled “The Disappeared Report,” about the culpability of American border enforcement agencies in what they call the “missing persons crisis” at the border.

It’s difficult to look at the group’s outspoken politics and robust arrest record and not suspect retaliation. Many of the charges filed against No More Deaths volunteers have focused on technicalities that are rarely enforced. In 2018, one of the nine volunteers charged with a misdemeanor on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge unsuccessfully filed a motion arguing that the government is selectively prosecuting No More Deaths volunteers. Warren’s attorneys made the same argument, a claim bolstered by the publication of texts and emails that suggest Border Patrol agents and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees have targeted No More Deaths specifically.

Humanitarian aid should not be criminalized, and neither should criticism of the state or its enforcement agencies. The disproportionate legal action taken against No More Deaths and its volunteers exemplifies the deliberate cruelty of the Trump administration’s border policies. Meanwhile, debates around free speech focus on minor disputes while ignoring a case with terrifying implications: the attempt, by government agents, to harass and intimidate a group speaking out against inhumane state policy. No one should be persecuted for offering humanitarian aid to someone dying in the desert. Nor should No More Deaths be disproportionately targeted for criticizing the national policy that makes such aid necessary.


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