(CNN)For many in the overflow crowd attending the first two days of the federal trial of Scott Warren last week, the stakes were clear: Under the Trump administration, where does humanitarian aid to the thousands of migrants traversing the Arizona desert cross the line into a crime?
Trial begins for No More Deaths volunteer who aided migrants
Warren, a volunteer for the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, faces three felony charges tied to his arrest on January 17, 2018, in Ajo, Arizona, for helping two undocumented migrants. Warren has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor the two men and to two counts of harboring undocumented immigrants. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
"This case is not about humanitarian aid," Nate Walters, the assistant US attorney leading the prosecution, said in his opening statement Wednesday. Rather, he said, it's about Warren's decision "to shield illegal aliens from law enforcement for several days."
But that is hardly a clear distinction for the many volunteers and aid groups who leave water and food in the desert, or who take part in search and rescue efforts -- or even for passersby who might stop to help struggling border crossers who've reached a highway. In the past, those who gave aid to migrants occasionally have faced charges, but many of the cases were dismissed or overturned. More often, the advance legal work of groups like No More Deaths and their outreach to the Border Patrol and other agencies have meant that authorities have tolerated their work.
The serious charges against Warren, along with escalating rhetoric from the Trump administration, suggest that the detente may be ending, which is raising concerns for the volunteers, mostly retirees and young people, who have come to observe the trial. It's "a difficult, frightening, profound moment for humanitarian workers," said Peg Bowden, a longtime volunteer with the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans who sat in on the trial Wednesday. Bowden helps feed migrants at a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, and teaches English to asylum seekers.
Over the past two decades, the deserts south and west of this city 70 miles north of the border have been among the busiest and deadliest crossing points from Mexico. From 2000 through the end of 2017, the Pima County Medical Examiner's office in Tucson recovered more than 2,800 human remains believed to be border crossers. Tucson is home to one of the largest Border Patrol stations in the country, and it teems with human rights and humanitarian aid groups. Last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents in the sector, which covers most of Arizona's border with Mexico, apprehended 52,172 people who crossed into the United States illegally.
The jury pool of 41 people for Warren's trial reflected a community whose lives and livelihoods are enmeshed with local border tensions, including a volunteer for the aid group Humane Borders, a Border Patrol agent, the wife of another agent, and the wife of a retired Customs and Border Protection officer. None wound up on the jury.
Warren's case revolves around a small house known as The Barn on the outskirts of Ajo, west of Tucson and about 40 miles north of the border. No More Deaths and several other aid or rescue groups use the property as a staging area for their work in the surrounding desert, which includes leaving water and food on migrant routes.
Walters, the assistant US attorney, said jurors would see evidence that Warren spoke by phone with a Mexican-American activist, Irineo Mujica, before Mujica transported two undocumented immigrants -- Kristian Perez-Villanueva, of El Salvador, and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, of Honduras -- to The Barn. Warren showed up there a few hours later.
Greg Kuykendall, Warren's defense attorney, disputed the claim, saying Warren spoke with Mujica about recovering the remains of some border crossers Mujica knew to be west of Ajo and organizing some humanitarian aid at a shelter. Mujica, who has not been charged in the case, is listed as a possible witness for the defense.