On January 14, 2018, two Central American migrants suffering from dehydration and exhaustion showed up at "the Barn," a building used by humanitarian aid groups in the border town of Ajo, Arizona. Scott Warren—a volunteer with the advocacy group No Más Muertes/No More Deaths—gave them food and water, and allowed them to spend a few nights there while they recuperated.
Three days later, Warren was arrested by Border Patrol and charged with two counts of harboring undocumented immigrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport them. If convicted, he faced up to 20 years in federal prison.
Warren's trial began last month. Yesterday, the jury who heard the case told Judge Raner C. Collins of the Federal District Court in Tucson that they could not reach a verdict, and Collins declared a mistrial. Eight jurors wanted to acquit Warren on all charges, while four wanted to convict.
A status hearing for the case is scheduled for July 2. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona has not said if it will pursue another trial.
"In the time since I was arrested in January 2018, no fewer than 88 bodies were recovered from the Arizona desert," Warren, a geology instructor, said immediately following the verdict. "The government's plan in the midst of this humanitarian crisis? Policies to target undocumented people, refugees, and their families. Prosecutions to criminalize humanitarian aid, kindness, and solidarity."
No More Deaths helps migrants as they cross the treacherous stretches of desert along the U.S.-Mexico border. As I wrote back in March:
That undocumented immigrants are negotiating precarious paths in favor of accessible ports of entry is no coincidence, according to No More Deaths. It's tactical, they say—part of a Border Patrol strategy that concentrates enforcement resources in urban areas to divert travel to hostile, potentially fatal routes.
Known as "Prevention Through Deterrence," Border Patrol conceived the practice in 1994. Such unsafe conditions should dissuade large swaths of immigrants from making the journey, the thinking goes. No More Deaths says the strategy is synonymous with "death as a deterrent."
Records show a spike in migrant fatalities not long after the implementation of "Prevention Through Deterrence." Between 1998 and 2005, the Tucson sector, where No More Deaths is stationed, saw annual deaths grow from 11 to 219.
"Since 1998, over 8,000 human remains have been recovered in Southern Arizona," Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler, a spokeswoman for the organization, tells Reason. "Since we know bodies break down quickly in such harsh environmental conditions, we know the true death count is much higher."
Prosecutors in the Warren case did not issue a statement immediately after the mistrial. But over the course of the trial, they disputed that Warren, a Christian, acted out of compassion or religious conviction. The case was "not about humanitarian aid," according to Nate Walters, an assistant U.S. attorney, but about a scheme "to shield illegal aliens from law enforcement for several days."
Federal prosecutors tried to prove that Warren intended to shield migrants from law enforcement using two pieces of circumstantial evidence. The first piece hinged on Warren's relationship with Mexican-American activist Irineo Mujica, who runs a migrant shelter in nearby Sonoyta, Sonora, on the Mexico side of the border. Warren visited the shelter several days before Mujica dropped two migrants—Kristian Perez Villanueva of El Salvador and Jose Sacaria Goday of Honduras—off at No More Death's barn. The order of events suggested that Warren and Mujica coordinated to hide the two men from law enforcement once they'd reached U.S. soil, prosecutors say, rather than only help them escape the desert. Warren testified that when he visited Mujica, they spoke only about searches for human remains in the Arizona desert.
The second piece of evidence came from Border Patrol agents who said they saw Warren conversing with the two migrants while he pointed at mountains in the distance. Although the officers conceded that they could not hear the discussion, they argued that Warren was likely telling the two migrants how to avoid a security checkpoint. Warren testified that he was telling the migrants to stay aware of State Route 85—the lone paved road on their hike, which runs between two mountains—in case of emergencies.
Four volunteers with No More Deaths were sentenced in March to 15 months probation for leaving jugs of water and cans of beans in the desert for passing migrants. In the eyes of the federal government, it seems that kindness is criminal.