Arizona: Where leaving water for the thirsty is a crime
Four women are on trial for leaving water in the desert to help people survive. It's a test of our national conscience, columnist EJ Montini says. Arizona Republic
Opinion: The charges against women in a group called No More Deaths aren't the first time our conscience has been put on trial.
This week in Tucson, the federal government put our national conscience on trial.
Technically, the government brought misdemeanor charges against four women working with a group called No More Deaths. The women were accused of operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area and entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit and abandoning property there.
The English translation is that the women ventured into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and left containers of water in a remote desert area where officials have recovered nearly 150 bodies (who knows how many more were never found.)
It’s an unforgiving place through which migrants attempt to cross. They don’t do so because they believe they might stumble upon a 1-gallon carton of water. They do so because they’re desperate.
This has been done before
As No More Deaths spokeswoman Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler said, "We are out there because there's a need and the need is not going to change dependent on ... the legality of our right to provide aid."
This isn’t anything new.
Not the humanitarian effort.
More are planned, as the Trump administration ramps up enforcement efforts.
And so, in Arizona, leaving water for the thirsty is a crime.
The '80s sanctuary movement
One of the witnesses called for the defense was Rev. John Fife, a founder of No More Deaths.
Rev. Fife is a retired pastor. He was a leader of the sanctuary movement in Tucson in the 1980s. He was among the volunteers in that movement put on trial.
At that time, volunteers were providing safe haven for refugees from war-torn Central America. The group was infiltrated by law enforcement and 11 were arrested.
I met a number of them back then. One man, Jim Corbett, a gentle Quaker goat farmer told me, ''I hope, I really hope, that this will not drag on and on and on. That someday there will be no need for people like us, for trials like this.''
The wisdom of hope
A USA TODAY Network investigation finds the number of migrants who died crossing the U.S. border with Mexico since 2010 is higher than what federal officials have reported. A USA TODAY NETWORK video production.
Not yet, I’m afraid. Not yet.
But I’ve never sensed a sense of despair in any of the sanctuary defendants or in any of the humanitarian volunteers who followed them, often risking their own freedom.
Some would call them foolish.
I side with the philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “We judge a man’s wisdom by his hope.”
We seem as a nation to occasionally put our conscience on trial, if only to find out that we’ve misplaced it. Arresting and prosecuting volunteers from groups like No More Deaths won’t stop people from coming. And it won’t stop others from trying to prevent their deaths.
Over the years, I’ve spoken and written about a banner that hung in Southside Presbyterian Church during the 1980s sanctuary trial. It read: “The truth will set you free.” And how, after eight of the defendants were convicted, including Rev. Fife, one of the group’s volunteers attached a sheet of paper to the banner that had printed on it — “eventually.”
Reach Montini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE BY MONTINI:
- Honor Justice O'Connor by passing the ERA
- Ducey can't fix the charter school scandal without saying 'charter school'
- Two things all 'goobers' can agree on