'This gruesome logic is profoundly disturbing': Judge reverses convictions of border humanitarians

'This gruesome logic is profoundly disturbing': Judge reverses convictions of border humanitarians
President Donald J. Trump visits the border area of Otay Mesa, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, a neighborhood along the Mexican border in San Diego, Calif. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The Trump administration’s yearslong taxpayer-funded mission to criminalize humanitarian aid at the southern U.S. border continues to be rebuked in the courts, with a federal judge on Monday reversing the convictions of four workers who had been charged for their actions volunteering with No More Deaths, the humanitarian aid group whose sole mission has been to prevent agonizing migrant deaths in the border desert.

The Tucson Sentinel reports that Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick had been found guilty of federal misdemeanors early last year for their work leaving water and other lifesaving supplies in the searing desert, Hoffman “for operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area and entering a national refuge without a permit while Holcomb, Huse, and Orozco-McCormick were found guilty of entering without a permit and abandonment of property.”

But in her ruling this week, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez wrote, “Defendants argue that those actions, taken with the avowed goal of mitigating death and suffering, were sincere exercises of religion and that their prosecution is barred by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” According to the court document, all four are affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church. Márquez’s ruling, noting the thousands of sets of human remains that have been found in Arizona during the past two decades, further castigated the government for “gruesome logic.”

"The government seems to rely on a deterrence theory, reasoning that preventing clean water and food from being placed on the refuge would increase the risk of death or extreme illness for those seeking to cross unlawfully, which in turn would discourage or deter people from attempting to enter without authorization,” Márquez wrote. “In other words, the government claims a compelling interest in preventing Defendants from interfering with a border enforcement strategy of deterrence by death. This gruesome logic is profoundly disturbing."

It was just this past November that the administration’s attempt to criminalize and punish another No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Daniel Warren, failed when a jury acquitted him of felony charges of harboring undocumented immigrants. Warren’s first trial that same year had previously ended in a hung jury. “However, he was found guilty of one charge for work on the refuge and still faces sentencing, scheduled for Feb 27, 2020 in Tucson,” No More Deaths tweeted.

Márquez’s ruling, the director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School, Katherine Franke, told the Tucson Sentinel, "marks a significant defeat for the Department of Justice in its effort to protect religious liberty rights only when they advance the White House's political agenda." And a significant defeat for an administration seeking to turn acts of basic human decency toward migrants into a 20-year prison sentence. Once again: Humanitarian aid is not a crime.

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