Guest post by Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler. Justine is the Media Coordinator for No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, a humanitarian organization in Southern Arizona. 

On Friday, March 4th, four volunteers with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group based out of Tucson, Arizona, were sentenced to fifteen months of unsupervised probation and issued fines. In January, they were convicted on three federal misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident occurring on the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness Refuge in August of 2017 during which they had placed aid supplies out on the Refuge in an attempt to combat an ongoing crisis of death and disappearance in the borderlands.

The Refuge is one of harshest landscapes in North America; summer temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (with surface temperatures pushing 150). There are almost no natural sources of water across the 860,000 acre expanse that shares 56 miles of border with Mexico. In the area our volunteers traverse, over forty sets of skeletal remains had been found since early 2017. These remains, however, represent only known deaths—the harsh environment guarantees that many more people have been lost without a trace, their bodies erased by the elements. In leaving water and food, the volunteers hoped to prevent future deaths during one of the hottest summers on record and in one of the deadliest migration corridors in the country.

In order to drive and hike on Cabeza, private citizens are asked to sign Hold Harmless agreements and obtain permits. These agreements release the government from liability in the event that an individual is harmed from a myriad of possible dangers on the Refuge, including unexploded military ordinances (the Refuge borders an active US Air Force bombing range). Prior to the summer of 2017, permits to access Cabeza made no specific reference to humanitarian aid supplies. After July, the permits explicitly prohibited leaving behind food, water, and blankets in the Refuge. Such a shift in permitting language was designed to target humanitarian aid workers, while doing nothing to address the crisis of death and disappearance happening on the federal government’s watch.

When asked during trial why the group had forgone obtaining permits, our volunteers said that doing so would have been dishonest. They were intending to put supplies in a part of the desert where dozens of people have died preventable deaths, and were not willing to sign their names to a permit they had to violate in order to save lives. For this reason, their trial was not predicated on the prosecution proving guilt—our volunteers proudly hiked lifesaving supplies into the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness in August of 2017. This case was based on deeper questions of morality in the law, as federal immigration policy does not account for the reality of lives being lost along our border.

No More Deaths has sought since its inception to operate under international law, including the protocols for care set forth by the International Red Cross, and the concept of non-refoulement set forth by UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Prior to appearing in court in January, our volunteers filed several motions to dismiss the charges, arguing that: criminalizing humanitarian aid violates international law; the government is selectively prosecuting No More Deaths volunteers; and the volunteers’ activities on the refuge were a matter of urgent necessity to preserve human life. All were denied.

No More Deaths  operates under the principle of civil initiative—a term born out of the Sanctuary Movement of the late 1980s. As described by Jim Corbett, a Quaker activist who co-founded the Movement, civil initiative is “non-violent, truthful, universal, dialogical, germane, volunteer-based and community-centered.” No More Deaths/No Más Muertes was founded in 2004 as a new coalition of groups who had been working for years to fight increasing border militarization and build a community for those fleeing violence in Central America. With the advent of “prevention through deterrence,” a policy enacted in 1994 under the Clinton administration that sealed off urban points of entry and purposefully routed migrants through the most dangerous parts of the desert, vast numbers of people began to perish. A conservative estimate of the total number of deaths since the mid-1990s hovers somewhere around 8,500; a truly accurate number is impossible to ascertain, as many remains have simply never been recovered.

No More Deaths/No Más Muertes exists because people have and continue to lose their lives at the hands of draconian border policy and enforcement. We believe that attempts to criminalize the humanitarian aid work our group and others like it perform are part of a larger, systemic movement against undocumented people in the United States. Over the last twenty-five years, legal pathways to citizenship have become increasingly close to impossible to pursue for the most vulnerable, while US government-backed interventions in Latin America perpetuate an ongoing human rights crisis. Violent anti-immigration rhetoric is a seemingly permanent feature of our current administration, and the number of complaints relating to abuses suffered by migrants in the custody of ICE and Border Patrol continues to rise.

These legal challenges against our volunteers are frightening, but not insurmountable. Our group remains committed to saving lives and providing compassionate aid to people making unfathomably difficult journeys. We reject the ever-increasing militarization of the border, and dream of a world without walls.