TUCSON — More than a decade ago, No More Deaths volunteer Dan Millis left plastic water jugs in the desert for migrants crossing the Mexican border into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
Federal authorities charged him with littering in 2008, and he was found guilty by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco.
Millis’ case was overturned two years later by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and it’s considered a win for the volunteer organization pledged to provide food, water and clothing for migrants crossing forbidden stretches of the Sonoran Desert.
Last week, Velasco found four more No More Deaths volunteers guilty of misdemeanor charges, not only for leaving aid, but also for trespassing on the national wildlife refuge. The four face possible prison time and a $250 fine. Sentencing has not been scheduled.
Velasco found No More Deaths volunteer Natalie Hoffman guilty of all three charges brought against her; Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick were found guilty of the two charges brought against them.
In his verdict, Velasco asserted the four defendants knowingly broke the law by entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a permit.
“The Defendants did not get an access permit, they did not remain on the designated roads, and they left water, food, and crates in the Refuge,” Velasco wrote. “All of this, in addition to violating the law, erodes the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature.”
Millis agrees wildlife refuges are “set aside to protect the cultural and natural resources of those of areas.”
However, he doesn’t think government organizations are responding adequately to what he said is an increasing number of human remains found across the desert.
“When we look at what’s happening on Cabeza Prieta, we see that there are people dying there in large numbers,” Millis said. “That is not part of what these lands were set aside for by the federal government, they’re not set aside as some sort of place where poor people can be punished as they try to migrate to survive.”
Given his own legal battle, Millis has hope for the four women found guilty Friday.
“(Velasco) said similar things about me with the bogus conviction 10 years ago. He was wrong then, and he’s wrong now,” Millis said.
Four more No More Deaths volunteers are scheduled to begin their trials Feb. 26 and March 4. Caitlin Deighan is charged with driving in a wilderness area. Deighan, Zoe Anderson, Logan Hollarsmith and Rebecca Grossman-Richeimer face charges of entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit.
A fifth volunteer, Scott Warren, is facing felony charges of harboring and conspiracy related to humanitarian aid work. His trial is set to begin in late May. Warren has taught in the past as a faculty associate at Arizona State University.
With Velasco’s decision last week, No More Deaths now has four more guilty verdicts to add to its legal history. But what do the recent convictions and upcoming trials mean for the future of providing potentially life-saving aid in Arizona’s borderlands?
The Rev. John Fife, one of the founders of No More Deaths in 2004, said the group’s guilty verdicts won’t change the work the group does.
“(The convictions) will have no impact,” said Fife, a retired Presbyterian minister. “We have a responsibility, not only to the right to provide humanitarian aid in the event of a tragedy like this, but we have a responsibility to see that the right to provide humanitarian aid is maintained.”
Katherine Franke, a legal expert on the defense’s side, said the criminalization of No More Deaths’ humanitarian work can spill over to the work of other aid organizations.
“I think any of the people who are providing social services to a range of communities in southern Arizona, some of whom might include undocumented people, are vulnerable to being prosecuted as well,” Franke said. “I’ve spoken to some of those people in southern Arizona, and they’re very worried and are watching how these cases go.”
Fife said the guilty verdicts for the four volunteers will be appealed.
“The ruling will be appealed, as have other rulings that tried to criminalize the provision of humanitarian aid in the midst of this terrible tragedy that’s going on in our desert and has for years,” he said.
The prosecution has declined to comment.
Fife, asked whether No More Deaths will continue to work in Cabeza Prieta, responded, “I think those questions, which are very detailed and very strategic, are under discussion right now because of the verdict that just came down on Friday.”