President Trump claims his administration’s heavy-handed immigration policies make us safer. But a criminal trial in Arizona this week shows that, in the Trump era, safety has lost its meaning. Federal prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against activist Scott Daniel Warren for doing nothing more than giving food, water, and shelter to migrants trekking through the desert. The stakes are high for Warren and for everyone concerned about unrestrained border policing.
Since the days of Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has feverishly pursued migrants. In April 2017, Sessions stood before Customs and Border Protection officers in southern Arizona, part of the federal Department of Homeland Security, and described macabre machete attacks and beheadings supposedly perpetrated by migrants. “Criminal aliens, and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overturn our system of lawful immigration,” he said. To show the front-line DHS law enforcement officers that the Justice Department is on their side, Sessions issued a memo to prosecutors asking them to ramp up prosecution of five federal crimes about immigration.
A few months later, prosecutors charged Warren with several counts of one of those offenses, conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. A federal felony that could land Warren in prison for twenty years, prosecutors rarely tap this charge. Even Sessions appeared to recognize that harboring cases are not big-ticket items. His April 2017 memo, which is still in force despite Trump ushering him out of the Justice Department, recommends targeting people who helped at least three people or where someone was injured. Prosecutors aren’t alleging either against Warren.
Instead, court records paint him as saintly. Border Patrol agents, prosecutors claim, saw Warren arrive at a remote desert location called “the Barn.” There he encountered two people fitting the description of “lost illegal aliens.” The two men, both of whom allegedly entered the United States clandestinely, didn’t know Warren and he didn’t help them get to the Barn. But once he met them there, Warren is said to have given them “food, water, beds, and clean clothes” for three days. Federal prosecutors don’t allege anything more sinister.
Warren’s prosecution is an example of immigration policies that prioritize heavy-handed policing. Where is the justice in going after a person who spends his free time roaming the treacherous Arizona desert to put out food and water? A single agency, the Pima County Medical Examiner, recovered the dead bodies of 2,615 migrants from 2001 to 2016 in this stretch of Arizona. More lives are certainly lost without anyone finding their remains.
To help alleviate the human cost of migration, activists like Warren have taken to leaving water throughout the desert and staffing shelters like the Barn. Government officials claim that activists endanger migrants by inducing them to come. Only days before Warren’s arrest, No More Deaths, the activist group that he volunteers with, accused Border Patrol officers of destroying thousands of gallons of water left for migrants. They backed up their report with photographs of agents dumping water. In one particularly shocking video, an agent kicks six jugs while two others look on. The water splashes onto the ground. One agent appears to smile.
The symbolism of the Trump administration’s charges against Warren is clear. The administration’s pursuit of immigration law violators displays a single-minded drive to instill fear in migrants and their supporters. The Justice Department is fighting hard to strip high-achieving young people of DACA’s temporary but meaningful benefits. Prominent activists have been detained and put into deportation proceedings. Workers are being detained at their jobs. ICE’s detention network continues to grow, and asylum-seekers are being stopped at the border. Now the administration is trying to fill prison cells with people who dare to provide water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and shelter to the lost.
It is too early in the legal process to know whether Warren will be convicted. The measured deliberations of court proceedings, where attorneys will try to zealously represent their clients, will hopefully ferret out the truth of what Warren did and what he knew.
Whatever turns Warren’s prosecution takes inside the courtroom, his situation reveals the Trump administration’s fear-laced view of migrants. They should be shown no mercy, no respect, no dignity—not even given the basics needed to survive in a place where so many others have died. And anyone who dares to do so, in the Trump view of things, is best locked up. To stop this type of over-the-top policing, Congress should repeal the harboring law. Republicans will never go along with this and Democrats are unlikely to push it. Instead, Warren’s trial should be a reminder that tapping criminal law in the name of humanitarianism frequently leads to a perversion of the idea of helping people.
A version of this article was first published by The Guardian on May 10, 2019 with the title “This Man Could Go to Jail for 20 Years For Giving Migrants Food and Water.”