Miguel A. De La Torre writes in Rewire.News:
This country has an odd way of defining “religious freedom.” Refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple or refusing to sell contraception at a pharmacy are defined as a religious right by self-professing Christians and safeguarded under the banner of protecting “religious freedom.” And while these are obvious examples of the abuse of the term, our religious freedoms, nonetheless, are indeed under assault by the federal government. Actual violations of religious freedoms are being ignored because they threaten and challenge the power and privilege of cisgender white men who get to define what does (and what does not) qualify as a “religious freedom” issue.
On Wednesday, May 29, the trial of geologist Scott Daniel Warren began. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. What heinous crime did Warren commit to warrant such severe punishment? He exercised his religious freedom to provide water, food, and clothing to those facing danger as they trekked across the desert. Warren had the audacity to take the words of Jesus literally, “For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, an alien and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you ministered to me”
Warren is the one who found 18 of more than 2,600 bodies discovered along the border between 2001 and 2016. He calls the desert a “sacred place… a graveyard.”
For Warren, leaving water becomes a religious act of remembrance and solidarity, of being presente. Not wanting Perez-Villanueva or Sacaria-Goday to join the list of what the Border Patrol considers “collateral damage,” he brought them to “the Barn,” a small building in Ajo, Arizona, used by No More Deaths, to provide them with food, water, beds, and clean clothes. This is where he was arrested on April 17, 2018, and charged with two felony counts.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a 2017 memo calling for the “disruption” of organizations such as No More Deaths, establishing a zero tolerance policy for those giving aid to migrants; border patrol agents pour out and destroy water bottles left by compassionate citizens along the border, including de la Torre, the writer of this piece. Both the United Nations and Amnesty International have voiced concern over Warren’s arrest.
At this moment a Good Samaritan stands trial and may receive up to 20 years for fulfilling the basic call of his faith. Alas, our Latinxphobic laws—based on characterizing us as having lots of problems, bringing drugs, and being rapists—are suppressing the religious freedom of those like Warren who are, in their view, keeping Jesus’ teachings and saving lives.
We are a nation that has made humanitarian aid a crime, and has made fidelity to the Bible a felony.
CNN’s reporting lists Warren’s arrest date in January, and says he has been charged with three felonies, not two.
The jury pool of 41 people for Warren’s trial reflected a community whose lives and livelihoods are enmeshed with local border tensions, including a volunteer for the aid group Humane Borders, a Border Patrol agent, the wife of another agent, and the wife of a retired Customs and Border Protection officer. None wound up on the jury.
Warren’s trial is expected to continue until at least June 7. Meanwhile, he awaits a ruling from Collins on separate misdemeanor charges connected to leaving food, water and medical supplies in June 2017 on a migrant route in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a wilderness area southwest of Ajo. Eight other No More Deaths volunteers were also charged with dropping supplies in 2017. Four were sentenced March 1 to $250 fines and 15 months of probation; four others reached agreements in late February to pay $250 fines and receive civil penalties.
No More Deaths, founded in 2004, generally has operated without penalties, but its relations with the Border Patrol have not always been smooth. Volunteers occasionally have faced charges in the past.
“Trump amped up a lot of this fear, but 15 years ago I experienced exactly the same thing,” said Shanti Sellz, a vegetable farmer in eastern Iowa. Sellz was a college student and visiting summer volunteer at No More Deaths in 2005 when she and another volunteer, Daniel Strauss, were arrested by Border Patrol agents while driving three dangerously ill undocumented immigrants to a hospital in Tucson. They spent three days in federal custody and were charged with conspiracy and transporting illegal aliens, both felonies.
…Another No More Deaths volunteer, Dan Millis, was arrested in February 2008 and convicted of littering for leaving food and water on a migrant trail through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Arizona.
“On February 20 I found the body of a 14-year-old girl who had died” in the desert, Millis said. “Two days later I got the littering ticket. It broke my heart.”
Warren was interviewed on Democracy Now (online only) in late May:
I think this [government action] changes little, in the sense that every day in the border region migrants, refugees, people who are coming across the border, who are coming through the desert, who are suffering, who are at risk of dying, are knocking on people’s doors, and they’re in need of water, and they’re in need of food. They’re in need of basic medical care and basic necessities. And people all across the border region are continuing to respond by offering these folks a glass of water, by offering them some rest or some food. And, frankly, I don’t see that changing.