Donald Trump claims his administration’s heavy-handed immigration policies make us safer. But a criminal trial in Arizona this week shows that, in the Trump era, safety has lost its meaning. Federal prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against activist Scott Daniel Warren for doing nothing more than giving food, water and shelter to migrants trekking through the desert. The stakes are high for Warren and for everyone concerned about unrestrained border policing.
Since the days of Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the justice department has feverishly pursued migrants. In April 2017, Sessions stood before Customs and Border Protection officers in southern Arizona, part of the federal Department of Homeland Security, and described macabre machete attacks and beheadings supposedly perpetrated by migrants. “Criminal aliens, and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overturn our system of lawful immigration,” he said. To show the frontline DHS law enforcement officers that the justice department is on their side, Sessions issued a memo to prosecutors asking them to ramp up prosecution of five federal crimes about immigration.
A few months later, prosecutors charged Warren with several counts of one of those offenses, conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. A federal felony that could land Warren in prison for 20 years, prosecutors rarely tap this charge. Even Sessions appeared to recognize that harboring cases are not big-ticket items. His April 2017 memo, which is still in force despite Trump ushering him out of the justice department, recommends targeting people who helped at least three people or where someone was injured. Prosecutors aren’t alleging either against Warren.
Instead, court records paint him as saintly. Border patrol agents, prosecutors claim, saw Warren arrive at a remote desert location called “the Barn”. There he encountered two people fitting the description of “lost illegal aliens”. The two men, both of whom allegedly entered the United States clandestinely, didn’t know Warren and he didn’t help them get to the Barn. But once he met them there, Warren is said to have given them “food, water, beds, and clean clothes” for three days. Federal prosecutors don’t allege anything more sinister.
Warren’s prosecution is an example of immigration policies that prioritize heavy-handed policing. Where is the justice in going after a person who spends his free time roaming the treacherous Arizona desert to put out food and water? A single agency, the Pima county medical examiner, recoveredthe dead bodies of 2,615 migrants from 2001 to 2016 in this stretch of Arizona. More lives are certainly lost without anyone finding their remains.