Immigrant Aid Workers Face Prison for Smuggling
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Coming up, a Southern California man who is helping his fellow retirees learn to write their own obituaries.
First, this. The huge numbers of illegal immigrants trying to cross the southern border into the US inspire different kinds of activism. Some civilians patrol the border to keep immigrants out; others are trying to help them. But NPR's Ted Robbins reports that in at least one recent case the desire to help may have gone too far.
TED ROBBINS reporting:
Daniel Strauss is in his Jeep bouncing along Ruby Road in the desert near Arivaca, Arizona, about 20 miles north of the border.
Mr. DANIEL STRAUSS (No More Deaths): So we find a lot of people who have been injured, you know, during that 20-mile stretch and they come to this road and it's their first place that they could look for help.
ROBBINS: Strauss is a volunteer for the humanitarian organization No More Deaths. The 24-year-old from New York has dark hair and a short beard. He and other volunteers have been camping out at night and, he says, finding immigrants needing help just about every day. We pass a Border Patrol truck, and then a couple of minutes later...
Mr. STRAUSS: There's a migrant. See him?
ROBBINS: Sure enough. A man is sitting by the side of the road with a backpack, looking disheveled and downcast. Strauss and fellow volunteer Cody Fisher(ph) get out of the car and ask if he's all right.
Mr. AMADEO VILLALOBOS(ph): (Spanish spoken)
Mr. STRAUSS: He says he has a--like a muscle cramp.
ROBBINS: They give him water, socks and a Ziploc bag filled with food. The man, Amadeo Villalobos, says he came to the US for a job at a factory in North Carolina. He was crossing at night with a group but got left behind, alone and lost. Now he's neither. The Border Patrol truck arrives.
Mr. VILLALOBOS: (Through Translator) I'm going to turn myself in because a lot of people have told me it's better to turn myself in than to just be left here alone dying of hunger.
ROBBINS: Villalobos appears to be OK, and the Border Patrol agent takes him away. But earlier this summer on July 9th, Daniel Strauss and another No More Deaths volunteer, Shanti Sellz, found three men in the same area, one of whom, Strauss says, was dehydrated, vomiting and in pain. Strauss says the volunteers followed the organization's protocol and called a doctor and a lawyer on their cell phones. They advised taking the man and the two other immigrants to a hospital in Tucson.
Mr. STRAUSS: That's what he said, you know, `I want to go to a hospital.'
ROBBINS: That's what he told you?
Mr. STRAUSS: Uh-huh. So--and we told him in no way can we help him evade the Border Patrol. You know, everything we do has to be in the open. We can't hide you in any way.
ROBBINS: Along the way, they were stopped by a Border Patrol truck. An agent arrested the immigrants and then arrested Strauss and Sellz. Border Patrol spokesman Gustavo Soto.
Mr. GUSTAVO SOTO (Spokesperson, Border Patrol): What these two individuals did--as soon as they placed the illegal aliens in their vehicle and began transporting them, they were breaking the law. They are aiding in their illegal entry.
ROBBINS: A No More Deaths spokeswoman says the group has taken at least 50 people needing medical attention to hospitals without incident in the past, and they believe their actions were legal. The Border Patrol says, no, it's only because they weren't caught.
Mr. SOTO: We have no problem with them working in that area, of course, giving humanitarian aid, but once they do place a person in their vehicle, they are breaking the law, and we are going to enforce that law.
ROBBINS: Strauss and Sellz face felony charges of transporting an illegal immigrant and conspiracy to transport an illegal immigrant. They have rejected a plea bargain in which the charges would be dropped in exchange for an admission of guilt. Strauss says the real crime is allowing 3,000 people to die in the desert over the last decade, more than 200 since last October in Arizona alone.
Mr. STRAUSS: I think the only thing that could come out of that prosecution in the end--if we were to be found guilty of these charges--would be the shutting down of humanitarian work on the border, and that would just lead to more deaths.
ROBBINS: This is believed to be the first time humanitarian workers have been prosecuted since the sanctuary movement of the 1980s. If they're convicted, Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz could receive up to 15 years in prison and a half-million-dollar fine. Trial is scheduled for early October. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.