Extending 'Zero Tolerance' To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border Scott Warren of the humanitarian group 'No More Deaths' faces three felony counts for harboring migrants. The number of U.S. citizens arrested for harboring is on the rise.
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Extending 'Zero Tolerance' To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border

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Extending 'Zero Tolerance' To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border

Extending 'Zero Tolerance' To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A trial begins tomorrow in the case of an Arizona man named Scott Warren. He works for a group called No More Deaths. It provides water and food to migrants who cross the Arizona desert. His case is part of a larger trend of prosecuting people for helping migrants. Those sorts of cases have risen since 2017 when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told federal prosecutors to clamp down. Here's our story from reporter Lorne Matalon.

LORNE MATALON, BYLINE: Warren is a 36-year-old college geography instructor from Ajo, Ariz.

SCOTT WARREN: It is scary to be intimidated like this and to be targeted, but there really is no choice.

MATALON: Warren was arrested in 2017 and faces three felony counts, including conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. In its complaint, the government states Warren was seen talking to two migrants who'd sheltered in Ajo. He denies being part of any sheltering plan.

WARREN: For the government, it's kind of been an expansion in the interpretation of what it means to harbor.

MATALON: The Pima County medical examiner has documented 250 migrant deaths in the area surrounding Ajo since 2001. In the same time frame, thousands have died in the Arizona borderlands.

WARREN: It is life or death here. A decision to not give somebody food or water could lead to that person dying.

MATALON: Nine and a half hours away from Ajo in the West Texas town of Marfa, another case is unfolding that pits the government against a four-time elected city and county attorney named Teresa Todd. She's under investigation for human smuggling after stopping to help what turned out to be three migrants. She described what happened on the night of February 27 as we drove toward the scene.

TERESA TODD: I see a young man in a white shirt. He runs out toward the road where I am.

MATALON: The man was pleading for assistance.

TODD: I can't leave this guy on the side of the road. I have to go see if I can help.

MATALON: The young man told Todd his sister Esmeralda was in trouble.

TODD: I mean, she can hardly walk. She's very dazed.

MATALON: When Todd stopped, she called and texted a friend, the legal counsel for the U.S. Border Patrol here, asking for advice. The migrants took shelter in her car. Before she got a reply, a sheriff's deputy showed up. Then a Border Patrol agent was soon reading Todd her Miranda rights. A week later, a Homeland Security investigator came to her office with a search warrant and took her cellphone.

TODD: It makes people have to question, can I be compassionate?

MATALON: The sheriff of Presidio County, Danny Dominguez, whose deputy called the Border Patrol, defends the action against Todd. He says anyone with undocumented migrants in their car risks arrest. Todd's response...

TODD: I feel like I did the right thing, and I don't feel like I did anything wrong.

ESMERALDA: (Speaking Spanish).

MATALON: That's Esmeralda. "I'm really grateful to her," she says of Todd. She spoke by phone from the migrant detention center at Sierra Blanca, Texas. She said doctors told her she was on the brink of death by the time she got to the hospital.

ESMERALDA: (Speaking Spanish).

MATALON: Figures confirmed by TRAC, an immigration records clearinghouse at Syracuse University, show that in fiscal year 2018, there were more than 4,500 people charged for harboring migrants. That's a more than 30% increase since 2015 with the greatest rise coming after Sessions' order. Ranjana Natarajan is the director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

RANJANA NATARAJAN: With these prosecutions, the government is saying, we're extending our zero tolerance policy to good Samaritans. People shouldn't be helping migrants even if they might be at threat of death.

MATALON: After nearly two months, Teresa Todd finally got her cellphone back from Homeland Security. She's waiting to find out if she'll be indicted for human smuggling. And Scott Warren - well, he's facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted. For NPR News, I'm Lorne Matalon.

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