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The Trials of Scott Warren

How the state has tried and failed to criminalize solidarity in the borderlands

On a blistering afternoon in August, a six-year-old studied her mother’s face as they took respite in the sparse shade of a weathered tarp. After weeks of harrowing travel from Honduras, the girl and her family had finally reached the U.S. border; they were staying at a migrant shelter in the small Mexican town of Sonoyta, Sonora. Now, sitting on a folding chair in a private corner of the shelter, her mother fought back tears. She had just learned from a humanitarian aid worker that without her daughters’ birth certificates, lost during their journey through Mexico, the U.S. government would likely separate her from her children at the Port of Entry. She could be detained for months, or longer. With no money left and no safe home to the south, she understood why so many risk crossing the vast and often lethal Sonoran desert. But not with three children. The situation felt impossible.

About forty miles to the north, in the town of Ajo, Arizona, another child struggled to understand why people were dying in the desert outside his living room window. Eight-year-old Gabriel Cooper had seen his older friend Scott Warren on the news. His parents had explained that Scott was in trouble for helping a pair of young men who had arrived in Ajo after walking for days through the remote desert south of town. Scott had given the two Central American men water, food, clean clothes, and a place to rest, and because of it, the government wanted to send him to prison for twenty years. Gabriel wanted to know why the people in power would try to punish Scott for helping others survive.

Scott Warren is just one of thousands of residents and humanitarian volunteers responding to the needs of migrants and refugees in the O’odham lands of the Sonoran desert. By targeting him and other borderland aid workers, the United States has demonstrated the lengths it will go to destroy the lives of migrants and forestall the radical possibilities prefigured in acts of care and solidarity. The Trump administration has sought to intimidate residents and establish a legal precedent that would criminalize humanitarian care—a precedent that would classify hospitality as harboring, search and rescue as smuggling, and aid as aiding and abetting.

In the end, the government’s attempt to criminalize humanitarian aid has set a precedent that helps to safeguard its legality.

So far, they have failed. Instead, the government’s efforts have only served to expose the government’s own crimes. In two separate felony trials, Warren and other humanitarian aid workers testified to the crisis of mass death and disappearance in the Sonoran Desert. The first time, earlier this year, a jury was unable to reach a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial, and the U.S. Attorney’s office elected to proceed with a retrial. Aid workers, border residents, and other witnesses to the decades-long human rights tragedy in the desert turned toward the new proceedings in November with rapt attention. Again, the state was unable to prove their case. This time, the jury’s decision was unanimous: “not guilty.”

In the end, the government’s attempt to criminalize humanitarian aid has set a precedent that helps to safeguard its legality. And Warren’s case has turned the spotlight on the true crime playing out every day in the borderlands: the lethal U.S. border enforcement strategy of “prevention through deterrence” and the culture of violence, cruelty, and racism endemic to the Border Patrol. Rather than instilling fear and compliance, Warren’s prosecution has prompted a groundswell of support for the right to both provide and receive humanitarian aid, and in turn, for the freedom to migrate and seek asylum across borders.

In June, the month of Warren’s first felony trial, volunteers with local migrant solidarity groups were organized and energized, but also spread thin. Many were in Tucson, taking notes in court, responding to requests for interviews, cooking food, posting updates to social media, and organizing press conferences in support of Warren and the organization he was volunteering with on the day of his arrest, No More Deaths. Some were in the desert south of the city, leaving water on trails and staffing the No More Deaths field clinic and aid station near the town of Arivaca. Others were in a remote stretch of wilderness near Ajo, coordinating a search and rescue response to a missing persons report received through the No More Deaths missing migrant crisis line.

Warren was also the last in a group of nine aid workers to face federal misdemeanor charges for leaving gallons of water and other aid supplies in the Growler Valley, a desolate migration corridor that stretches north through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. According to volunteers on the ground, in a nine-day period leading up to and during the misdemeanor trial, aid workers encountered the remains of fourteen people—most had died in the Growler Valley, many within walking distance of a Border Patrol “rescue beacon.”

This raw brutality unfolded in the desert alongside a different kind of everyday violence playing out within the soundproof walls of Tucson’s Evo A. DeConcini Federal Courthouse: the Department of Homeland Security’s “Consequence Delivery System” known as Operation Streamline—an exercise in “assembly-line justice” in which up to seventy-five migrants a day, in proceedings that can last as little as thirty minutes, are tried, convicted, and sentenced en masse, then shipped off to largely for-profit detention centers.

This mundane administration of white supremacy and carceral violence churned on just two floors below the courtroom where U.S. attorney Nate Walters opened the government’s felony harboring case against Warren, proclaiming: “This case is not about humanitarian aid.” That blatant misdirection could not obscure the human rights disaster playing out in the borderlands just south of the city, and the dire need for a humanitarian response, which every day became more apparent to the jury. In one especially revealing exchange during the first trial, defense attorney Greg Kuykendall questioned government witness Gerardo Carrasco, a twenty-year-veteran Border Patrol supervisor, member of the agency’s so-called Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) Unit, and an “operational medical advisor” for Customs and Border Protection:

Q: Are you aware of something called the Prevention Through Deterrence doctrine?

WRIGHT: Objection. Beyond the scope of direct, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Overruled.

A: No, I do not know.

Q: You’re not aware that, in 1994, Border Patrol Strategic Plan launched something called Prevention Through Deterrence?

A: I’ve not heard that phrase specifically, sir.

Q: Are you aware that, in 1998, BORSTAR was created?

A: Yes.

Q: And BORSTAR was created because of the rapid loss of life along the border?

A: Yes.

Q: Are you aware that the rapid loss of life along the border has continued regardless of the existence of BORSTAR?

A: I cannot speak to that, sir.

[ . . . ]

Q: Are you aware that practically 3,000 recovered human remains have been documented by the Pima County Medical Examiner since the year 2000 and attributed to being undocumented border crossers?

A: I do not know those numbers specifically, no, sir.

Q: Are you telling this jury this is the first time you became aware that 3,000 undocumented border crossers at a minimum have lost their lives in Pima County alone since the year 2000?

A: I have not heard the 3,000 number, no, sir.

The trials of Scott Warren, it is true, were not merely about humanitarian aid; they were also about truth, the history of violence, the power of witness, and the banality of evil.

In July, news of a retrial reverberated throughout the border region. Rural residents and aid providers knew that a final resolution would have immediate implications for migrants and solidarity workers both. The hottest and most deadly weeks of summer had arrived. Residents of Arivaca were devastated to discover the remains of a young man just four hundred feet from a paved town road. Shelters in northern Mexico stretched food donations and tent space to accommodate families waiting to request asylum.

At a community meeting to discuss the imminent border wall construction south of town, residents of Ajo and the neighboring Tohono O’odham Nation filled their historic high school auditorium to register outrage over the desecration of sacred Hia C-ed O’odham sites and the inhumane treatment of migrants. One resident addressed a Border Patrol liaison: “You’re using death, you’re using murder, and you’re using our community to do it. You’re using our wilderness. . . . And now here you are pressing charges against people saying they’re littering when your agents are kicking over water drops.” A barely perceptible charge passed through the room, and several more residents lined up to speak.

But communities across Southern Arizona are not only speaking up about their intimate relationship to the crisis—they are continuing a generations-long tradition of giving aid. Weekly, sometimes daily, an exhausted traveler finds their way to town, often having gone days without food or water. Locals offer care and respite, as they have for decades. Many still remember when, in 1980, law enforcement, land management agents, and residents came together to give humanitarian and legal aid to a group of thirteen Salvadoran migrants lost in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just south of Ajo. Half of the group had perished before help arrived, and the Ajo community gathered in churches and public spaces to reckon with their shock and to assist the surviving family members.  

Ironically, in its rabid and reeling attempts to stomp out solidarity, the state has made its everyday performance even more visible.

The Ajo Humanitarian Aid Office, which opened its doors to the public in the heat of August, weeks after Warren’s first trial, honors this tradition. A grassroots project of local residents, the one-story building stands along the town’s main road, serving as a space to share stories and get access to resources for the provision of humanitarian relief. One of its volunteers is a lifelong border resident and octogenarian. José Castillo, like his father and grandfather, worked in the Ajo copper mine when it was still in operation. He was raising children in the 1970s when the Phelps Dodge mining company razed homes in Ajo’s Mexican Town and Indian Village neighborhoods to make way for their expanding operations.

“From a very young age, we were taught to help one another,” José reminds younger organizers frequently. He recalls not only the collective response to the grief-stricken Salvadoran family some forty years ago, but how the local paper reported this with pride and sensitivity. Castillo has experienced the accumulated trauma of dispossession, extractive economies, and militarization, and laments the impact this has had on his community. Somewhere between the Clinton-era launch of death-by-design border policy and the expansion of the Ajo Border Patrol Station from just ten agents in the 1980s to over four hundred by 2012, residents of the region became worried about “the consequences of helping too much,” as José puts it. Some were simply weary or tending to the immediate needs of life after enduring years of systemic violence. Many never stopped offering care to distressed migrants, but it had been years since these actions were reported in the paper or supported by law enforcement, let alone honored or held sacred by the general public.

Castillo believes this is changing. Although he and others have anxieties around criminal prosecution, they also report that, since Warren was charged, there is a renewed, community-wide commitment to elevating the local legacy of care and solidarity. In the months since its opening, dozens of stories about giving and receiving aid have surfaced at the Ajo Humanitarian Aid Office. Its existence, just like its sister aid office in Arivaca, which opened in June of 2012, is a quiet testimony to the resilience and power of a community under pressure.

The criminalization of solidarity has created a kind of crucible in which border residents and aid workers must reconcile their deepest beliefs and inclinations with the continuing threat of arrest and prosecution. Especially for those with white skin, citizenship status, and other privileges, these external forces press upon previously unchallenged assumptions and values. In a statement following Warren’s not-guilty verdict announcement two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Michael Bailey, signaled that his office will continue its politically motivated prosecution of border residents. “We won’t distinguish between whether someone is harboring or trafficking for money,” he said, “or whether they’re doing it out of a misguided sense of social justice or belief in open borders or whatever.” But the impulse to care cuts across political lines. Residents are still putting life-saving water along migrant trails, collecting shoes for families waiting in northern Mexico shelters for a chance to fight for asylum, and offering respite to exhausted and traumatized travelers who knock on their doors. Ironically, in its rabid and reeling attempts to stomp out solidarity, the state has made its everyday performance even more visible.

In an era of global climate apartheid, the line that separates rich from poor and North from South is becoming harder and more defined every day. As U.S. and European governments alike fortify borders, stonewall asylum-seekers, impound children in cages, terrorize the undocumented and deport the vulnerable, they must also clamp down on those who act in solidarity with the displaced and those who struggle for a world without borders. Those who choose to defect against their own privilege and side with the marginalized and vulnerable will be treated like the traitors they are. Across Europe, hundreds of people are arrested for providing food, water, and other aid to the sans-papiers. Those who set sail to save the lives of refugees lost and drowning in the Mediterranean—Europe’s own and even deadlier Sonoran Desert—are arrested and face decades in prison. In Mexico, the country’s allegedly leftist president capitulates to the U.S. and escalates the government’s crackdown on Central American refugees and those who organize to help them.

Individual acts of compassion and harm reduction are not, of course, sufficient to change the world. But they can be profoundly subversive. Humanitarian aid, much like migration itself, is not only a means of alleviating suffering and preventing death; it is also a technique of social resistance. Governments criminalize acts of solidarity because they fear the political possibilities that such acts envision. In the end, however, what the authorities fail to understand is that if they outlaw humanitarian aid, they will just create more outlaws.