Four human rights activists are facing up to six months in prison after they were convicted by a federal judge for dropping off water and food for migrants in a protected wilderness area along the Arizona-Mexico border. The verdict is the first conviction against humanitarian aid volunteers along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2009.
Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick, all volunteers with humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, were found guilty of entering the refuge without a permit and leaving behind 1-gallon water jugs and cans of bean in the the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona — an area that has become infamous for the number of migrants that die there of thirst or starvation while trying to cross into the U.S. Humanitarian groups have long dropped off water in the reserve in an attempt to prevent needless deaths. But in July 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife abruptly banned leaving behind food, water, medical supplies and other aid in the refuge — purportedly for the preservation of the wildlife reserve.
Lawyers for the defense had argued that the women eschewed permits because of the amended rules that banned permit holders from leaving aid for migrants. “I was there to leave water,” said Hoffman, when asked why she hadn’t signed the document. Defense attorneys also accused the federal government of deliberately targeting No More Deaths with special requirements for permits, noting that unlike members of the general public, No More Deaths members were required to speak to the refuge manager before being granted permits while other members of the group had been barred from obtaining permits altogether. Lawyers further cited a July 2017 meeting with wildlife officials and an assistant U.S. attorney in which the prosecutor allegedly claimed he wouldn’t charge volunteers who were just dropping off water and food.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, said there was no evidence to prove that the 2017 meeting took place and demanded a guilty verdict on the basis that all four women had admitted to entering the reserve without permits. Leaving water, they argued, was unnecessary because the Border Patrol had installed 10 rescue beacons within the refuge. The water, they claimed, gave “false hope” to migrants. The defendants had disputed this characterization, noting that they too wanted migrants to access the distress beacons, but that it was necessary to make water available because many died unnecessarily of dehydration before reaching them.
“This verdict challenges not only No More Deaths volunteers, but people of conscience throughout the country,” said Catherine Gaffney, a longtime volunteer for No More Deaths in a statement made in response to the guilty verdict. “If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?”
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