Arrests of people for harboring, sheltering, leaving food and water or otherwise protecting migrants have been on the rise since 2017. It was then that Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to prioritize cases covered under the harboring statute.
Scott Warren, a 36-year-old college geography instructor from Ajo, Ariz., works with a group called called No More Deaths or No Mas Muertes. The group’s volunteers leave water and food for migrants traversing the Arizona desert.
Warren was arrested in 2017 and now faces three felony counts including conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. In its complaint, the government claims Warren was seen talking to two migrants who were provided shelter in Ajo. He denies being part of any sheltering plan.
“It is scary to be intimidated like this and to be targeted but there really is no choice,” said Warren. He believes the government is violating his right to religious freedom by criminalizing his spiritual belief that mandates he help people in distress.
“For the government, it’s kind of been an expansion of the interpretation of what it means to harbor,” he suggested.
The Pima County Medical Examiner has documented 250 migrant deaths in the area since 2001. In the same time frame, thousands have died of dehydration and exposure in the Arizona borderlands.
“It is life or death here. And a decision not to give somebody food or or water could lead to that person dying,” Warren said.
“With these prosecutions, the government is saying, ‘we’re extending our zero tolerance policy to Good Samaritans,'” said Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “People shouldn’t be helping migrants even if they might be at threat of death.”
As for Scott Warren, he faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all three felony counts, a prospect he can’t even contemplate.