Aid Worker on Trial for Feeding, Sheltering Migrants

A Customs and Border Control agent patrols the U.S. side of a razor-wire-covered border wall along the Mexico east of Nogales, Ariz., on March 2, 2019. A border activist charged with helping a pair of migrants with water, food and lodging is set to go on trial in U.S. court in Arizona. Defendant Scott Daniel Warren has argued that his spiritual values compel him to help all people in distress. The trial is began May 29, 2019, in Tucson, with the 36-year-old Warren charged with harboring migrants and conspiring to transport and harbor two Mexican men found with him who were in the U.S. illegally. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – A volunteer for a southern Arizona humanitarian aid group testified Wednesday in federal court that he wasn’t harboring two undocumented Central American men when he fed them and gave them water and place to sleep for two nights in January 2018 – he was just carrying on a tradition in the small town of Ajo, Arizona.

“People have been giving humanitarian aid for generations in that town,” Scott Warrren testified. “I think the best thing about it is that humanitarian aid is legal. That’s recognized all across the globe.”

Warren was arrested Jan. 17, 2018 with two undocumented migrants – Kristian Gerardo Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Godoy from Honduras. He is charged with two felony counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens.  His trial started May 29 and is expected to end this week.

Warren testified that he thought he was within the law when he helped the two men for three days and has always operated within the law when he helps migrants.

Prosecutors say Warren had been in contact in the days before his arrest with a Mexican aid worker, Irineo Mujica, who helped organize migrant caravans through Mexico last year. Mujica and Warren, prosecutors say, conspired to help the undocumented pair get from a shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico to the “barn,” a ramshackle house at about 30 miles from the border that immigrant advocacy group No More Deaths uses as an informal headquarters.

The two migrants met in Sonoyta late in 2017, where they stayed in an abandoned house for more than a month, begging and planning their trip north, Sacaria-Gody said in a deposition taped in March 2018.

They climbed the border fence on a Friday night, Jan. 12, 2018, then made their way on foot through 30 miles of desert to Why, Arizona, where they got a ride to Ajo and found a stranger who said he could help, Perez-Villanueva testified in a deposition.

“He said he could take us nearby, to someone who could help us,” Perez-Villanueva said.

The man dropped them at the empty barn, which was unlocked. Eventually, Warren arrived.

“We just asked him to let us rest a few days,” Sacaria-Godoy said. Both migrants testified that Warren never suggested any course of action or gave them directions along the way, and that they had never met him before arriving in Ajo.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents Brendan Burns and John Marquez had begun watching the barn with a scope from a few hundred yards away on a tip that immigrants were in the area. In the days after the men’s arrival, they saw Warren come and go, saw the Sacaria-Godoy and Perez-Villanueva talking to him, Warren apparently gesturing toward distant mountains as if directing the men, the agents testified.

Burns said last week that if the men had needed medical help, they could have stopped at a fire station, Border Patrol station or medical clinic that they passed on the way to the barn.

Prosecutors have argued that the men weren’t in danger or even hungry or thirsty by the time they got to the barn and didn’t need aid. A gas station security video shows the men buying drinks and a burrito in the hours before arriving. They did not appear injured, Burns said.

When the agents saw the undocumented men talking to Warren outside and Warren gesturing, they thought the men might be planning to leave, so they raided the barn. Warren was arrested, and the two undocumented men deported.

Warren testified that talking to the men about surrounding mountains is as much part of the humanitarian mission of No More Deaths as giving them water or food, and No More Deaths volunteer Geena Jackson, who helped write the aid group’s protocols, agreed.

Orientation – knowing where you are in relation to surroundings – is a basic human right under international agreements and codes of conduct that guide the non-profit’s work, Jackson said.

Pointing out mountains would be a normal part of that, she said.

Since 2012, Warren has found 18 dead people, and he always takes a moment to “witness” them at the place they died. He turns his back, gazes out at what he presumes is the last scene they saw, then sifts a handful of sand through his fingers to mark the moment, he said.

“There have been many of these instances that have been transitions for me,” he said calling the experience “a very haunting thing for me, very disturbing.”

Warren came to the tiny desert town in 2012 to work on his PhD dissertation, in which he detailed how the southern Arizona border has changed through history. He quickly became immersed in the struggle of migrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, who came “stumbling out of the wilderness” daily, looking for food, water or shelter, he told the jury.

Warren will resume testimony on Thursday.

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