Is helping struggling migrants a crime? US jury cannot decide

The proceedings against humanitarian aid activist Scott Warren temporarily concluded with the judge declaring a mistrial after the jury arrived at a hung verdict. Warren was arrested after helping two undocumented migrants who had just crossed the border

June 12, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
After his release, Warren spoke to media highlighting the necessity of humanitarian work for migrants who face extreme conditions during their bid to cross the border. Photo: Laura Sanders/The Intercept

On June 11, a US federal judge declared a mistrial in the case against humanitarian aid activist Scott Warren, after the jury could not arrive at a unanimous verdict. Warren, who is an aid volunteer associated with No More Deaths, was tried in the federal court over three criminal charges relating to charges of transporting and harboring undocumented migrants within the United States. US district judge Raner C. Collins declared a mistrial after the jury came back with an 8-4 split, twice on the same day. Eight of the jurors were in favor of acquitting Warren.

The federal jury returned a split verdict on all the three charges. If found guilty by the jury, Warren could have faced a maximum 20 years of imprisonment. Warren was arrested along with two migrants in January 2018, by the US Border Patrol from the “Barn”, a ramshackle structure on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, near the desert region that runs across the US-Mexico border.

The Barn is the staging point from where the Tucson-based humanitarian organization, No More Deaths, has been operating. It provides water and other aid supplies for migrants who cross the hostile desert at the Mexican border. Warren and No More Deaths have maintained throughout the trial that the two were allowed to rest and recuperate having suffered severe dehydration and heatstroke in the desert, where temperatures sometimes go up to as high as 50 degree Celsius. They have also alleged that the arrests in January 2018 were a vindictive act by the Border Patrol officers, as it happened within hours of No More Deaths posting a video that caught the officers destroying bottles with gallons of water left in the desert by aid workers.

The prosecution, led by US federal attorney Nate Walters, tried to claim that Scott Warren was conspiring to transport and harbor the two migrants. As evidence, they presented his call records, which included his communication with a Mexico-based aid activist. Warren rubbished the accusation and clarified that the calls were made to coordinate the logistics of their aid work and nothing more.

As the prosecution’s case hinged on the unstated “intentions” of Warren, if he were found guilty, the case would have had a far-reaching implications. By finding him guilty, the jury would have also by implication defined what kinds of act constitute humanitarianism.

In the aftermath of the jury’s decision, Warren currently does not stand accused of any of the charges and jury has been disbanded. Judge Collins has given federal prosecutors time till July 2 to decide whether or not they want to pursue the case before a new jury.

After his release, Warren spoke to media, highlighting the necessity of humanitarian work for migrants who face extreme conditions during their bid to cross the border. “From the time I was arrested in January 2018, no fewer than 88 bodies were recovered from the Arizona desert,” he said.

His went on to state, “Today it remains as necessary as ever for local residents and humanitarian aid volunteers to stand in solidarity with migrants and refugees. And we must also stand for our families, friends, and neighbors—and the very land itself—most threatened by the militarization of our borderland communities.”

He also remembered the two immigrants who were arrested along with him in January 2018, and have since been deported. He said “the other men arrested with me that day, Jose Sacaria-Goday and Kristian Perez-Villanueva, have not received the attention and outpouring of support that I have. I do not know how they are doing now, but I do hope they are safe.”

Statement by Scott Warren outside the Tucson Federal Courthouse