An Arizona humanitarian aid volunteer goes to trial today for providing water, food, clean clothes and beds to two undocumented migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. If convicted, Scott Warren could spend up to 20 years in prison. Warren, an activist with the Tucson-based No More Deaths, is charged with three felony counts of allegedly “harboring” undocumented immigrants. For years, No More Deaths and other humanitarian aid groups in southern Arizona have left water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert, where the temperature often reaches three digits during summer, to help refugees and migrants survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border. Warren was arrested on January 17, 2018, just hours after No More Deaths released a report detailing how U.S. Border Patrol agents had intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants crossing the border. The group also published a video showing border agents dumping out jugs of water in the desert. Hours after the report was published, authorities raided the Barn, a No More Deaths aid camp in Ajo, where they found two migrants who had sought temporary refuge. We speak with Scott Warren and his fellow No More Deaths volunteer and activist Catherine Gaffney in Tucson.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to southern Arizona, where a humanitarian aid volunteer is heading to trial today for providing food, water and shelter to two undocumented migrants. Scott Warren of Ajo, Arizona, faces up to 20 years in prison after being charged with three felony counts for allegedly harboring undocumented migrants. Warren is a geographer who volunteers with No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans, two southern Arizona-based humanitarian aid organizations. For years, the groups have left water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert to help refugees and migrants survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border.
AMY GOODMAN: Warren was arrested January 17, 2018, just hours after No More Deaths released a report detailing how U.S. border agents had intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants crossing the border. The group also published a video showing border agents dumping out jugs of water in the desert. Hours after the report was published, authorities raided Warren’s home in Ajo, where they found two migrants who had sought temporary refuge. Amnesty International and other human rights groups are now calling for the charges to be dropped against Warren.
In a moment, Scott Warren will join us from Tucson, but first I want to turn to a short documentary by Laura Saunders for The Intercept about the work of humanitarian aid workers, including Warren, on the border. It’s titled “Let Them Have Water.”
MIMI PHILLIPS: We savor our desert, but this desert, right around our town, where we recreate, held 57 bodies, 57 remains of human beings, last year. Fifty-seven. Do you find remains in your parks, in your golf courses, in your neighborhood playgrounds? What would that make you feel like?
UNIDENTIFIED: May the spirits of our brothers and sisters walk in beauty for eternity. Thank you, creator.
SCOTT WARREN: I am Scott Warren, and I’m a geographer. And I have lived in Ajo for about six years now. The moment that really changed for me, got me involved in a big way, was moving here to Ajo and just experiencing the border in a more visceral way, being here in the summer, running into people in the desert who had walked across the desert and were in need of water, meeting other folks who were doing humanitarian aid. It just seemed like, if not the most important, one of the most important issues facing this place. For me to not be involved in that would be like not being fully engaged and fully present in this place.
So, groups like No More Deaths and Samaritans, Humane Borders, Aguilas del Desierto and the Armadillos, for instance, have all provided humanitarian aid and done search and rescue in different ways here in the desert. We went from finding human remains every other month to like finding five sets of human remains on a single trip hiking through the Growler Valley and then going back a week later and finding two more sets of remains, and then, on a single day of searching, finding like eight sets of remains and bodies of people who had died in adjacent areas of the bombing range and on Cabeza Prieta. So just this like scale of this crisis, of the humanitarian crisis and the missing persons crisis, just blew wide open.
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: My name is César Ortigoza, and I’m the president of Armadillos Search and Rescue. We’ve been doing this for almost six years. We’re proud in our sticking together for a long time, you know? This work is really necessary for the families that are in need of our help.
OFFICER: What’s going on, guys?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Yeah, we’re going to La Muela right now.
OFFICER: Oh, La Muela? La Muela?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: La Muela, yeah. We’re searching for a guy that was left out there.
OFFICER: Oh, you’re searching for a body?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Yeah, uh-huh.
OFFICER: Is it just one that you know of? Or…
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Yeah. Well, there is three, actually.
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: You know, but one of them is the more recent. We hope to find him today.
It’s really grateful to have all these people, these volunteers, because we might belong to different families, we might not even be related to each other, but inside here we have to be a family, you know?
ARMADILLOS SEARCH AND RESCUE MEMBER: [translated] In your hands, Lord, we ask this morning that you help us reach the place where the people that need your help are. Father, we ask this so that we can help them, as it is the mission we carry in our hearts.
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: We just have to be realistic and know that we have to be strong. You know, even though it breaks our hearts to find these remains, we have to be strong and keep on going, you know, because, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do this job. About three months ago, we found the remains from a little boy or girl, probably 5, 6 years old. And it’s really sad to think what they had to go through and how they died. And knowing that their families won’t be able to see them anymore, it’s really, really hard. But we have to keep on doing it. You know, it’s really necessary.
ARMADILLOS SEARCH AND RESCUE MEMBER: [translated] Do you have it in your hand?
CÉSAR ORTIGOZA: Our responsibility is just to give them the coordinates. And once they have it, that’s really up to them if they come over and get him.
SCOTT WARREN: In January of 2018, I was arrested by Border Patrol and charged with harboring. In the Border Patrol criminal complaint against me, they said that I was providing food, water, beds and clean clothes to two men, and so they charged me with harboring. Went through Border Patrol custody and then appeared in front of a judge and was released on my own recognizance. And that was over a year ago, and we’ve been engaged in various legal proceedings leading up to a potential trial sometime later this year.
MIMI PHILLIPS: I’m Mimi Phillips. I moved to Ajo about 15 years ago. And about eight or nine years ago, a group of us began a small version of the Samaritans here. I guess every time I look at Scott, I think of my own son. And it’s unconscionable to think that he’s been charged with felonies for doing what, as a parent, I would be so proud of what he had done. And I know his parents are proud.
SCOTT WARREN: People have always crossed in the Ajo area. People have always been walking through the desert. People have always been finding ways to come here through the desert. But what happened is it was turned into a major industrial-scale operation in the 1990s and early 2000s, as they really pushed people out into places like these, in these deserts and mountains. What had been really a small-scale thing, local organizations that move people and goods through the desert, a small handful of Border Patrol agents that might go out and try to interdict people or might be involved in finding people who had died, or local residents who would respond to people who needed food and water, that all just completely mushroomed into this massive, massive industry.
MIMI PHILLIPS: You reach a point where you say, “Enough. You know, whatever the consequences are, enough.”
Drivers with permits should come together to be able to approach law enforcement. And everyone else…
How many more bodies? It’s just not OK. You know, we’re here, and we will leave the water. And we are a real community that isn’t a scary place to live.
SCOTT WARREN: I think one important thing is that people here in Ajo and other local communities on the border have always been providing humanitarian aid and have always responded to people being in need. People here have, you know, provided food and water to folks who are crossing the desert who are in desperate condition. They have responded to rescue people who are in the desert. They have found and recovered the bodies and the bones of people who have died in the desert. So, that’s been going on for forever, basically, and has been a fact of life for people who live here.
JOSÉ CASTILLO: Buenas tardes.
CROWD: Buenas tardes.
JOSÉ CASTILLO: I want to start off by saying who I am. I’m José Castillo, and I’ve been around here for almost 80 years. We honor these individuals today with the reading of their names. Please respond with ”presente” when the name is called. No es conocido.
AMY GOODMAN: “Let Them Have Water,” a short documentary by Laura Saunders for The Intercept. When we come back, we go to Tucson to speak with Scott Warren, who was arrested in January of 2018 in Ajo, Arizona. He goes on trial today. Stay with us.