Updated: Jul 23, 2020
We’ve been hearing a lot recently about our southern border with Mexico and laws and policies about immigration. This post isn’t about those policies, but rather about a story of some citizens who were concerned about would-be immigrants dying in the desert.
No More Deaths is a volunteer organization that encourages Americans to leave food and water for would-be immigrants along the US-Mexico border. In the summer of 2017, four volunteers, Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco, left water and food for migrants in a desert area known for the number of people who have died there trying to cross the border. They were charged criminally and recently convicted of entering the area without a permit and littering.
Currently, No More Deaths and some of their activists are facing a host of legal problems related to their work in the Arizona desert. Are the members of this organization breaking federal law? Do they pose a threat to our country? Or are they being targeted by local police because of their “pro-immigrant” stance?
We’ll explore the facts of the case and provide more details about the work this organization does. But first, we’ll offer some background.
The Work of “No More Deaths”
No More Deaths is a volunteer organization that leaves water and food in the Arizona desert along the paths that many migrants travel over while walking to safety. Founded in 2004, No More Deaths is based in southern Arizona. Their goal is to provide sustenance to help migrants survive, and also to advocate for humane immigration policy. Many migrants crossing into the US are malnourished and dehydrated from physical exertion and the desert temperatures. The provisions left by No More Deaths’ volunteers help keep these migrants alive during their perilous journey.
Who Is Being Charged...and for What?
Recently, four volunteers were charged for their humanitarian work on behalf of No More Deaths. The defendants, Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco, were charged with two different misdemeanors: one for entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit, and the second for the abandonment of property. Each volunteer faced up to 6 months in prison and a $500 fine. They were recently convicted.
What Is the Legal Basis for the Charges?
The legal basis for these charges stems from the fact that Cabeza Prieta, the area where No More Deaths volunteers are working, is the largest wilderness area in Arizona. According to No More Deaths, an estimated 155 migrants have died in this region since 2001. This is one reason the organization continues to leave food and water in the region. But because the area is protected as a nature preserve, the volunteers are forced to deal with the legal ramifications. The question, however, is whether or not the arrests are politically motivated. It's highly possible that these volunteers are being punished for the humanitarian work they are doing, rather than the actual crimes that they are committing.
The 5 recent arrests are not the first for members of this organization. Another No More Deaths volunteer named Scott Warren is still awaiting trial after being charged in May of 2019. Unlike all the other cases involving No More Deaths volunteers, Warren is being charged with a felony count for alien smuggling. He is set to appear in court in the coming months.
Why Is the Case Such a Big Deal?
When a humanitarian agency trying to do a good thing gets a bad rap, it is more difficult for the organization to get the work done. As many know, lawsuits cost money and time, and can highly impact the way that an organization functions. There is reasonable speculation that these charges are meant to distract No More Deaths from doing their humanitarian work as well as costing them time, money and resources that they could be using towards their work. This organization is doing controversial work that many disagree with, and for that reason, it is not surprising that they are being slowed down by legal barriers.
Why Is It Controversial?
The reason that these particular cases are so interesting is because the arrests occurred closely after No More Deaths released video evidence of border patrol officers kicking over and dumping out water left along trails in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness area. Notably, during the trials of the four volunteers, evidence surfaced showing that the rangers who had granted permission for people to enter the Cabeza Prieta desert were instructed to withhold permits from No More Death workers.
Currently, it is easy for most people to get a permit to enter Cabeza Prieta. Hunters and hikers get them all the time, as do the many border patrol officers who drive through the area freely. During the recent trial, there was also evidence shown that other misdemeanors (such as littering) committed in the same area were either overlooked or treated with a “slap on the wrist.” This evidence further supports the suspicion that the arrests of No More Deaths volunteers are politically motivated.
Immigration is an important and unresolved issue and organizations like No More Deaths aren't going away. They will continue to try and help people crossing the border find safety, or at least survive their physical journey.
It’s unfortunate that this case is an example of the law being used to further an agenda, rather than promote what the rules say and maintain fair and equal order. Let’s hope that in the future, fewer cases involve the political game and more cases that support the greater good come to courts.