Why this man could end up in jail for helping to save migrant lives

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Photo: Screenshot/Democracy Now!

"Every life is sacred, and every soul is a precious gift from heaven." So said President Donald J. Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast last February 7. Trump's Christian posturing would be laughable if his policies weren't so cruel and often deadly. Take, for example, asylum-seekers crossing the U.S. southern border. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. Increasingly militarized and violent enforcement of border security has driven desperate migrants further from official ports of entry, forcing many to embark on dangerous treks through the scorching deserts of the American Southwest. Scott Warren, a geographer and educator who volunteers with the humanitarian aid groups No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans, is on trial now in federal court in Tucson, Arizona. If convicted, he could spend 20 years in prison for giving migrants in need, according to his indictment, "food, water, beds and clean clothes."

Before heading to his first day in court Wednesday, Warren appeared on the Democracy Now! news hour: "Many have died while making the journey. For decades, activists in the region have left food and water in the desert to help lessen the death toll. Increasingly, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents destroy water and food caches that they find in the desert."

On the morning of January 17, 2018, No More Deaths released a report and video detailing CBP interference in humanitarian aid delivery. The report stated, "In the desert of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, where thousands of people die of dehydration and heat-related illness, Border Patrol agents are destroying gallons of water intended for border crossers. Border Patrol agents stab, stomp, kick, drain, and confiscate the bottles of water that humanitarian aid volunteers leave along known migrant routes in the Arizona desert. These actions condemn border crossers to suffering, death, and disappearance."

The videos of border agents emptying gallons of water went viral. By 5:30 p.m., agents had pulled up to "the Barn," a building near Ajo, Arizona -- 40 miles from the border -- where volunteers gather, and where migrants occasionally arrive, seeking aid. Two migrant men were detained there, and Scott Warren was arrested. "The report was released that morning, and then agents set up surveillance on the Barn that afternoon and then arrested me that evening," Warren said.

Catherine Gaffney is also a volunteer with No More Deaths. More than 7,000 migrant deaths have been recorded in the border region in the past 20 years, but, she says, that is an undercount. "Not only is there this repression of the right of people to receive food, water and medical care," she said on Democracy Now!, "but to provide food, water and medical care. It's really striking that they're going after humanitarian aid work in the Ajo area, because so many of the deaths that are being reported are being found by humanitarian aid volunteers … not only will people be left to die, but their deaths will go [undiscovered], and the true scope of this crisis will go unrecorded."

No one at that February National Prayer Breakfast called out Trump for his decidedly un-Christian treatment of migrants. Pope Francis did have something to say about migrants, however, recently releasing a statement on the Vatican's 105th annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees, to be held on September 29. The Pope wrote: "The signs of meanness we see around us heighten our fear of 'the other,' the unknown, the marginalized, the foreigner. … But the problem is not that we have doubts and fears. The problem is when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even -- without realizing it -- racist." Migrants and refugees, he adds, "are often looked down upon and considered the source of all society's ills."

The Pope assumes many might be racist "without realizing it." Trump is another case entirely. He was an enthusiastic leader of the "birther" conspiracy that alleged Barack Obama was not born in the United States. When Trump announced his presidential bid in 2015, he said of Mexicans: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." He says that there were "very fine people" among the torchbearing Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen in Charlottesville, Virginia. Aided by his hard-line, anti-immigrant adviser Stephen Miller, Trump tirelessly rails against migrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Haitians and those he says live in "huts" in "s***hole countries."

The parable of the good Samaritan figured prominently at the National Prayer Breakfast. Scott Warren is a real-world Samaritan, walking the desert, among the bones and decomposing remains of migrants and extending a helping hand to desperate strangers in need. Rather than prosecuting him, the Trump administration should be honouring him, while ordering border agents to deliver, not destroy, water. What would Jesus do?

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Truthdig.

Photo: Screenshot/Democracy Now!

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