On October 7th, The Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, in conjunction with the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula, will be featuring the full-length documentary, Undeterred, the story of life on the U.S.-Mexico Border in Southern Arizona at 6:30 PM, in the Freeman Center’s Gaines Theater. The film will be followed by a Q&A session featuring several humanitarian aid volunteers, including the film’s Associate Producer.

This blog post is the last of a three-part series that traces migrants’ motivations for crossing the border, the history of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1990s, the weaponization of the desert that has led to the deaths of over 5,000 migrants, and the criminalization of humanitarian work along the border.

Map of the Arizona-Mexico Border Depicting Recorded Migrant Deaths
Map of the Arizona-Mexico Border Depicting Recorded Migrant Deaths

The United States is facing an immigration crisis. Migrants crossing the border without adequate documentation are dying in stark numbers. The previous post in our series explored migrants’ motivations for crossing at deserts along the border, and the harsh desert conditions lead to many deaths. Since 1998, at least 7,505 individuals died crossing the border. In Pima County, Arizona alone, the Medical Examiner has received 2,923 remains since 2000. Organizations are attempting to provide humanitarian aid to migrants, but recent government crackdowns on their efforts are preventing aid from saving migrant lives.

America began militarizing the border in the 1990s. This militarization consisted of increased border patrol stations and officers. In attempts to support this policy, America instituted the “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy. This strategy includes using the deserts as weapons along the U.S.-Mexico border. Deserts serve as their own borders-to-entry, so Border Patrol finds it unnecessary to place physical barriers. Instead of placing fencing or other deterrence methods along and inside the desert, they simply ensure that the desert is inhospitable for migrant travel. This prevention includes withholding supplies, such as water, clothing, and shelter, within or close to the desert terrain. In theory, the risk of death would deter migrants from crossing at desert sites, but the risk of remaining outside of the U.S. explored in our first post, pushes migrants to brave the dangerous conditions.

Water Jug from No More Deaths
Water Jug from No More Deaths

In response to mass migrant deaths, humanitarian organizations formed with the purpose of supplying migrants with life-saving supplies. Organizations like No More Deaths, Frontera de Cristo, CRREDA, Humane Borders, Samaritan Patrols, and People Helping People, work to provide food, water, shelter, and clothing to individuals crossing the desert. Their efforts include leaving water and “harm reduction kits” along known migrant routes, as well as completing search and rescue missions for stranded individuals. While the organizations’ main purpose is to provide relief for migrants, they provide aid regardless of legal status.

In recent years, the humanitarian efforts by local residents and non-governmental organizations became the targets of Border Patrol Officers. Before 2016, border patrol officers and humanitarians coexisted harmoniously and with knowledge of one another’s actions. However, increased restrictions on immigration policy and entrance created a hostile environment near the border.

Border Patrol officers are no longer turning a blind eye to humanitarian efforts. Instead, they are actively sabotaging those efforts. Officers are slashing open the water jugs and destroying supplies left in the desert for migrants. Patrol is also tracking down humanitarians and the organizations providing aid to arrest and charge them with federal misdemeanors and felonies for providing life-saving aid to migrants.

In 2017, the group No More Deaths faced federal misdemeanor charges for “entering a wildlife refuge without a permit” and “abandonment of property.” The charges held possible punishments of imprisonment and $10,000 in fines. Charges are not simply falling on the organizations, the government is charging individuals as well.

"The Barn"
“The Barn”

In January of 2018, Scott Warren was arrested by Border Patrol Officers for providing aid to migrants. While working for No More Deaths, Warren provided food, water, clothes, and shelter to two migrants in a structure called “The Barn.” The Barn was a safe haven for migrants searching for medical assistance or resources during their travels. While two migrants were at The Barn receiving aid, Border Patrol raided the structure and arrested the migrants and Warren. The government charged Warren with “conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens,” and “concealing, harboring, or shielding from detection… in furtherance of illegal presence” in the nation.

These charges accuse Warren of actively keeping migrants from government arrest, but Warren was simply providing aid. The Barn was a public building and the migrants’ identities were not a secret. Under U.S. law, no person has the obligation to report undocumented immigrants, or any unlawful conduct, to police. U.S. precedent states that association with undocumented migrants is not a crime. Even so, the United States wants to charge Warren for not reporting the migrants and providing them aid.

When charging humanitarian workers and organizations, the federal government is not creating new laws. Instead, the prosecution is redefining and reapplying laws already on the books. “Harboring illegal aliens” usually requires intent to hide them from law enforcement under 8 U.S. Code § 1324. However, humanitarian organizations are not necessarily hiding migrants. “Transporting” immigrants is another federal charge under8 U.S. Code § 1324, but the “transport” in border cases usually takes the form of providing directions or driving migrants to medical aid. The federal government is attempting to prove that the humanitarian organizations are actively assisting, transporting, and hiding migrants from the authorities. In reality, the organizations only desire to save lives.

Warren worries this criminalization of aid will become a slippery slope. Will individuals need to ask the legal status of individuals before providing them with directions? If someone is found dying of starvation and dehydration in the desert, will it be illegal to provide them with life-saving medical aid if they are undocumented? It is too soon to understand what ramifications the increased criminalization of aid will have on humanitarians, border patrol, and illegal migration. Even so, humanitarian organizations are not withdrawing their efforts to assist migrants any time soon.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University