Criminalizing Humanitarian Aid

News & Politics

Last July, volunteers from a coalition of human rights, faith and student activists in Arizona were arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol during the rescue of three critically ill men attempting to cross the border.

No More Deaths -- founded in the spring of 2004 as a binational network of "migrant-friendly" groups and people on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border -- describes its organizational mission as seeking "to end the suffering and deaths of migrants in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands."

In the last decade, upwards of 2,000 individuals have died traversing the desert. The Coalicon de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) calculate that at least 282 migrants lost their lives between Oct. 1, 2004, and Sept. 30, 2005 -- the time period used by the U.S. government as its fiscal year -- along the Arizona border alone.

As part of the group's humanitarian aid patrols, No More Deaths members Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss encountered a group of eight individuals braving the 105-degree heat this summer. They soon discovered that three of them were suffering several potentially life-threatening afflictions: dehydration, persistent vomiting, bloody diarrhea, heat exhaustion and severe blistering on their feet that restricted them from walking.

After consulting a pair of doctors, a certified nurse practitioner and an attorney, Sellz and Strauss resolved to evacuate the men to Tucson where they could receive immediate medical care. They never made it there.

En route to treatment, their vehicle was pulled over by Border Patrol agents who promptly arrested Sellz and Strauss and took into custody, then deported, two of the migrant men. Amnesty International reports that the other man, Emil Hidalgo-Solis, "was detained for two months as a 'material witness' in the case and deported without a hearing after he had made a videotaped statement" used for the government's pursuit of criminal charges against Sellz and Strauss.

According to Bates Butler, former U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, during the men's detention no one "received medical attention, although the No More Deaths volunteer doctor and nurse went to the Border Patrol to examine and treat them. The Border Patrol turned the nurse and the doctor away." Unfortunately, the No More Deaths run-in with immigration law enforcement remains poised to inflict more injustice -- even beyond the cruel medical neglect of the ailing men and their expulsion. The aid volunteers -- whom Hidalgo-Solis credited in his deposition as being responsible for his survival -- are currently confronting severe penalties for their intervention.

Sellz and Strauss, both 23 at the time of their arrest, have since been indicted by a federal grand jury on two felony counts -- "transportation in furtherance of an illegal presence in the United States" and "conspiracy to transport in furtherance of an illegal presence in the United States." If convicted, each will face up to 15 years of imprisonment in addition to fines possibly totaling $250,000.

Shortly after releasing Sellz and Strauss, U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton proposed a plea bargain to the two defendants. In exchange for acknowledging guilt for their actions, the duo would have been spared incarceration. They refused. Instead, they proclaimed what has since become a prominent refrain in their campaign: Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime.

Among the all-volunteer legal team defending Sellz and Strauss is former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley G. Feldman. However, No More Deaths' strategy for thwarting Sellz' and Strauss' imprisonment is not confined to placing political heavyweights in the courtroom; indeed, they have also launched a campaign to mail signed postcards to Charlton's office demanding that he drop all charges against the two. Although they initially pegged their goal at 10,000, Pancho Medina, a No More Deaths volunteer, says they have already delivered close to 30,000 postcards to the U.S Attorney's office.

This Sunday, No More Deaths members and their allies will conclude a rolling 40-day fast that coincided with the seasons of Passover and Lent and included more than 100 participants. The fast aims not only to both remember and honor the thousands of individuals who have lost their lives in the desert, but to also highlight the dangerous laws and policies that foment their needless deaths.

While the xenophobic fervor of the so-called Sensenbrenner bill (PDF) has (rightfully) fixed our national attention on prevailing anti-immigrant forces within Congress, we too must be vigilant of the fight for a humane immigration policy within the judicial realm.

Sellz' and Strauss' case has been postponed multiple times. So when Arizona officials decide to finally take it to court, likely in the coming months, we too must stand prepared to halt this reckless precedent -- the criminalization of humanitarian aid to those in need -- from taking root.

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