They tried to help, and now they face prison: stories of volunteers who saved immigrants
Scott Warren spent 5 years in the desert, stretching from the palm-strewn town of Ajo to Mexico. Warren attributes to this land rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and cacti, turning him from a university teacher to a humanitarian aid worker, but this conversion came at a very high price. Writes about it Time.
He appeared in court twice - once in a criminal case and once on misdemeanor charges. The third time can be fatal - he faces a ten-year imprisonment. The humble scientist has gained a fame he never sought: now he is a defendant in a criminal case that is attracting international attention.
And all this because of the attempt to save the lives of many illegal immigrants.
In the afternoon of January 17 of 2018, immigration agents went down to a building on the outskirts of Ago, where there were people trying to get across the US border. Warren and other like-minded people left water, food and medicine here so that immigrants who fled from Mexico did not die along the way. Warren and two Central American men were detained and brought to the Ajo Border Patrol Station.
The next day, he was taken to Tucson for two hours, where he was charged with three felony charges: two charges of harboring illegal immigrants, and one more conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants. The men from Central America were eventually deported.
This case would have gone unnoticed if it had not been for the message to people who provide humanitarian assistance around the world. It says that now not only immigrants, but also people helping them become a target.
Warren is not the first aid worker to be prosecuted, but the charges against him are the most serious to date. His first criminal trial ended in June 2019. Prosecutors dropped the conspiracy charge. Warren is still awaiting a verdict on misdemeanor charges also related to his volunteer work. The retrial in criminal cases begins on November 12.
“It is alarming that the US government and Western European countries are currently responsible for politically motivated human rights violations against HRDs themselves,” says Brian Griffey of Amnesty International.
Elinor Reiks of the International Rescue Committee says that all of this "is part of a wider tendency in Europe and the United States towards increasingly extreme measures to prevent illegal border crossings."
According to the International Organization for Migration, between 2014 and 2018, more than 30 000 people died in an attempt to cross international borders. The most dangerous, to date, is the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 17 000 of men, women and children have drowned. During the same period, at least 1871 people died on the southern border of the United States and Mexico.
It is not possible to accurately indicate the number of people held accountable for assisting immigrants. Studies conducted at the University of Syracuse show that the number of people prosecuted in the United States for allegedly harboring illegal immigrants was more than 5200 this year, an increase of 25,6% from the year 2018.
According to the ReSoma monitoring group, the number of volunteers arrested or held responsible for helping immigrants has increased from 10 in 2015 to more than 100 in 2018. The group has no data for 2019 year yet.
When Warren began his humanitarian work with No More Deaths five years ago, he never thought it was illegal. “It was definitely a surprise and is now puzzling as prosecutors continued to press charges even after the trial,” Warren, 37, said in one of the few interviews.
Warren is worried about others who help immigrants, because they too can be arrested.
“You buy food for your uncle, who has no ID, now you can be chased for hiding,” he says. "It scares me to think that laws are being interpreted to arrest more people."
There are many reasons for migration and they are different, but they have one thing in common: to go in search of a better life against the backdrop of the anti-migration wave, which, according to experts, began in Europe in 2014. In 2014, more than 200 000 illegal immigrants, most of whom tried to escape from conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of getting to the European shores. A year later, another 850 000 people arrived on the Greek coast, and even more 100 000 people landed in Italy.
The countries of the European Union, after a number of sponsoring search and rescue operations, decided to suspend this process and reduce the “attraction factor”. But this did not stop the migrants, and the volunteers were forced to help illegal immigrants on their own.
It was then that Sarah Mardini began her journey.
It was August 2015 of the year, and the waves beat against the edge of the crowded rubber boat in which Sarah and her younger sister Yusra Mardini were. The engine began to rattle. Illegals looked at each other nervously. In the end, the man stood up and announced that he would jump into the sea to lighten the load. Several people did the same, among them was 20-year-old Sarah.
Sarah and Yusra fled from Syria, where they wanted to become professional swimmers. Before leaving for Europe, Sarah worked as a lifeguard.
“Swimming was in our blood,” says Sarah. “However, she was terrified when she plunged into the cold water. "I didn't know if I would survive." For three and a half hours, she and Yusra helped steer the boat to the Greek island of Lesvos. “We're very lucky,” says Sarah. "Nobody died."
A year later, after taking refuge in Germany, Sarah returned to Lesbos and applied her lifeguard skills to help others. Police accused her and other volunteers of speculating on helping migrants. Each of them spent more than three months in Greek prisons until they were released on bail in December.
Sarah and her colleagues face up to 25 years in prison. “They think that if the volunteers disappear, the refugees will stop arriving,” she says.
It is true that migrants arrive at a slower pace today than in 2015, but processing centers are still overwhelmed. According to the International Organization for Migration, people are still dying on the Mediterranean coast - at least at the beginning of November 2019, 1090 people died.
"The only thing that is a crime," says Sarah's lawyer Zacharia Kesses, "is the maximum number of people drowning in the Mediterranean."
Most of these deaths - about 700 - occurred en route to Italy. The story of Carola Rackete, a relief worker, who is going to stand trial for rescuing an illegal, is widely publicized. In early June, 31-year-old Raketa patrolled international waters between Libya and Italy in her Sea-Watch 3. A woman received reports that a crowded boat was drifting nearby. Coming closer, she realized that a small puncture or overload was enough for the boat to overturn and all 53 passengers drowned, because none of them was wearing a life jacket.
Rocket says she had no choice but to get the migrants aboard the Sea-Watch 3 and take them to Italy. “We would have broken a lot of laws by bringing them back to Libya,” she says. "We couldn't do it."
When she headed to the Italian port of Lampedusa, about 150 miles away, the Italian government told Rocket that she did not have permission to enter. 17 days she remained at sea with the settlers.
Once on land, the migrants whom she saved fell under the protection of European law, and Rocket became his victim. She is under investigation for opposing a warship and smuggling people, and if convicted and convicted she faces 10 years in prison. Italian authorities seized Sea-Watch 3 to collect evidence, putting an end to rescue operations.
International experts who have observed the growing migration crisis say that things like Rocket, Sarah Mardini, and now Warren have been observed for years, even decades.
In Europe, centrist politicians sought to be considered tough on migration issues.
This helped in the election of Matteo Salvini, he received the post of Minister of Internal Affairs of Italy, his views are similar to those of US President Donald Trump.
“Italy has been accepting and retaining refugees and migrants for years without any support from the rest of Europe,” says US Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamar. "The Italians, having elected Salvini, spoke out against illegal migration."
Salvini lost his post amid riots in the government in August 2019, but recent polls show that 33% of Italians prefer his party, which makes it possible for Salvini to form a new government if elections are held soon.
In the United States, the Clinton administration in 1993 began to take measures to enforce borders in busy city ports, such as El Paso, Texas, and San Diego. According to Wayne Cornelius, Emeritus Professor of the Mexican Migration Research Program at the University of California, San Diego, the idea was to deter migrants from pushing them away from protected areas.
“The patrolmen expected the deserts and mountains to discourage illegal immigrants,” Cornelius wrote. "This assumption turned out to be a failure."
On the contrary, migrants arriving from Mexico made their way through deserts. The deadliest site is in Arizona. According to Amnesty International's report, over the past 20 years, there have been 38,3% deaths on the US-Mexico border, out of more than 7200 registered by US officials.
Ajo is located about 40 miles (64,3 km) north of Trump's border wall. It is surrounded by nature: a nature reserve to the west, a national monument to the south, desert and mountains to the north and east. The area's remoteness is a haven for migrants hoping to remain undetected. Many die along the way. More than 2019 remains have been found so far in 90.
By the time of his arrest, Warren had lived in Ajaw for five years, considering it an ideal place to study the effects of the border on the earth and the people crossing it. With a doctorate in geography, he was a lecturer at Arizona State University and was able to combine his research trips with volunteering for groups helping migrants.
Everything changed in the afternoon of January 17 of 2018, when agents who examined the base of humanitarian workers, a building known as Barn, arrested him. Warren is accused of explaining to two migrants how to avoid border patrols. He claims that he simply helped men get medical care, which is not a crime.
Seven months earlier, Warren was charged with clogging and illegally entering a nearby nature reserve, which is considered a federal offense. In the same year, at least eight volunteers from the No More Deaths organization faced similar allegations of misconduct. Charges against four of them were dropped. The remaining four were convicted and sentenced to 15 months of probation without supervision. All eight were fined 250 dollars.
Warren does not consider himself an activist, he is just a "normal person" who cannot stand the thought of people dying alone in the desert when a jug of water, a few beans or a warm coat can save them. “You have blisters, you are dehydrated, you are cold, you are hot, you are tired - of course, I am going to provide you with help,” he says. "It's a little different than just going and protesting against the wall being built."
In response to the request of his lawyer Greg Kaykendall to explain to the misdemeanor judge why “a handsome 36-year-old man is wandering the desert with all these humanitarian aid groups,” Warren explained that it was his “sacred duty” to prevent as many deaths as possible.
Warren says he continues his volunteer work, but Sarah Mardini and Carola Rocket are forced to stop. Mardini returned home to Germany and was barred from entering Greece, at least before the trial. The Sea-Watch 3, which belonged to the Rocket, remains in the hands of the Italian government.
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