Written by: Taher Kameli, Esq.
One may think that helping those in need is doing a good deed. However, apparently in the eyes of the Trump administration, when those in need are unauthorized migrants, helping them can constitute a Federal crime. Notwithstanding this apparent perspective of the Trump administration, on November 20, humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren was found not guilty of harboring unauthorized migrants in Arizona.
Warren, a volunteer for the humanitarian aid group, “No More Deaths”, was arrested on January 17, 2018 by Border Patrol agents. The Border Patrol agents had been surveilling a building in Ajo, Arizona that was used by humanitarian aid groups to provide food and water for migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. It is estimated that at least 7,000 migrants have died since the 1990’s in trying to cross the Sonoran Desert, with its harsh conditions, as part of their journey into the United States.
The Border Patrol agents who arrested Warren found him with two migrants from Central America. Warren said that he was giving the migrants food, shelter, and first aid. However, the Border Patrol agents claimed Warren was helping the migrants evade custody; Warren was charged with two counts of harboring unauthorized migrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport the migrants.
Warren was initially tried in June and faced a possible 20-year prison sentence. However, in this initial 9-day trial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The government decided to retry Warren, and his second trial (with the government dropping the conspiracy charge, such that Warren now faced a 10-year prison sentence) began on November 12 in Tucson, Arizona. After a 6-day retrial, a 12-member jury, after about 2 hours of deliberation, found Warren not guilty.
A key issue in Warren’s case was whether Warren knowingly assisted the unauthorized migrants in hiding from the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol agents said they saw Warren talking to the migrants and gesturing toward desert areas where they would be less likely to be arrested by the Border Patrol. Warren denied this Border Patrol allegation, stating that he was trying to orient the migrants to help them avoid more dangerous desert areas.
After the verdict, Warren stated, “The government failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness. . . . Everyone here did diligent, detailed and amazing work”. “No More Deaths” wrote in a tweet, “Yet again, No More Deaths has withstood the government’s attempts to criminalize basic human compassion. . . . We will continue to provide food, water, and medical aid to all those who need it, until the day that no one dies or disappears while crossing the deserts and oceans of the world”. Greg Kuykendall, Warren’s lead attorney (who worked the case pro bono), stated, “[The verdict] was such a validation of the incredibly important work that these humanitarians are doing at great risk to themselves”. Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, stated, “Sense has prevailed today with the jury exonerating Dr. Scott Warren for a simple reason: humanitarian aid is never a crime. . . . The Trump administration is wrong to try to prosecute people who are only trying to save lives. By threatening Dr. Warren with a decade in prison, the U.S. government sought to criminalize compassion and weaponize the deadly desert against people who make the perilous journey to the United States in search of safety”.
Warren’s case is perhaps the most severe (given his potential prison sentence) example of an increase by the Trump administration in the prosecution of humanitarian aid workers who assist unauthorized migrants along the U.S. southern border. Since 2017, 8 other “No More Deaths” volunteers have faced misdemeanor charges in connection with their work for migrants. In addition, according to a study by Amnesty International, lawyers who assist migrants and journalists who cover the U.S. southern border have also been surveilled, searched, and detained by government officials. Katherine Franke, professor of law at Columbia University and faculty director of Columbia University’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project, stated, “The government certainly wants to send a strong message to people who are providing aid to migrants”. Bijal Shah, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, stated, “Charging Scott Warren in this context is part of a broader framework of governmental interest in dissuading people from supporting non-citizens. . . . By discouraging people from assisting non-citizens we are discouraging people from maintaining the United States’ humanitarian commitments”.
While Scott Warren was found not guilty, the mere fact that the government decided to prosecute someone (and subject someone to significant potential prison time) for Warren’s specific actions shows the hostile attitude that exists among many government officials toward immigrant rights. In this anti-immigration governmental environment during the Trump administration, it is vital that immigrants hire skilled immigration lawyers, such as the Law Offices of Kameli and Associates, which has had years of success and experience in representing immigration clients, to protect their immigrant rights. If you need assistance with any immigration matter, please contact the Law Offices of Kameli and Associates, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-233-1000, for representation.