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'Literally What Jesus Told People to Do': In Arizona, Possible Prison Time for Leaving Food and Water for Migrants

"If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?"

volunteers

Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco face possible prison time for leaving food and water in the desert for migrants. (Photo: @NoMoreDeaths/Twitter)

Four women were found guilty of misdemeanors and are facing possible prison time for leaving jugs of water and canned food in the Arizona desert for migrants braving the scorching triple-digit temperatures during the summer of 2017.

"If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?"
—Catherine Gaffney, No More Deaths

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco on Friday convicted Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco—all volunteers with the organization No More Deaths—for entering the Cabeza Prieta refuge without a permit and leaving the items, which "erode the national decision to maintain the refuge in its pristine nature."

The volunteers—who face up to six months behind bars and a fine of up to $500—and other critics of the Velasco's decision argued that the women were simply trying to save lives.

"This verdict challenges not only No More Deaths volunteers, but people of conscience throughout the country," declared Catherine Gaffney, another of the group's volunteers. "If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?"

Professor Katherine Franke, faculty director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School, challenged the outcome on legal grounds.

"Velasco's guilty verdict in the case mirrored the government lawyers' trivialization of the defendants' religious liberty claims, describing them as 'a modified Antigone defense,'" she said in a statement (pdf). "He failed to undertake even a minimal legal analysis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as the law required."

Bill McKibben, a co-founder of 350.org who has talked openly about how his faith has driven his environmental activism, tweeted, "This is literally—literally—what Jesus told people to do."

The case comes amid mounting national criticism of the Trump administration's immigration policies, and rising tensions between U.S. Border Patrol and humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths. Although no one from Border Patrol testified in the case, those tensions were on clear display, as AZ Central reported:

Prosecutors argued that the 10 rescue beacons that the Border Patrol installed inside the refuge was the "preferred way to save lives," rather than dropping off water jugs with gave "false hope" to migrants, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Walters said.

Defense attorneys responded that access to the beacons was key, and that migrants who were dehydrated might not be able to get to them. 

What was not discussed during the trial were the accusations from No More Deaths that Border Patrol agents "systematically" destroy or empty water bottles they leave behind for migrants in the desert.

As The Intercept's Ryan Devereaux noted on Democracy Now! last week: "It's important to keep in mind here that the sort of targeting of humanitarian aid on the border is part of a larger crackdown that the Trump administration has been orchestrating on the border. It extends to family separation. It extends to the sort of clogging of ports of entry for asylum seekers. So, you know, in these trials, there's a ton at stake."

While these four women will be sentenced as early as next month, five more volunteers also face misdemeanor charges for work in the refuge, with trials slated to begin in late February and early March. According to No More Deaths, one of them, Dr. Scott Warren, "is also charged with felony harboring and conspiracy related to humanitarian aid work." That trial is set to begin in late May.

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