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Steller column: Intimidation campaign intensifies against border humanitarians

Steller column: Intimidation campaign intensifies against border humanitarians

When Ana Adlerstein followed an asylum-seeker into the Lukeville port of entry May 5, she thought the whole situation was solid.

The asylum-seeker already had an American attorney who had called ahead, Adlerstein and the Central American had gone together earlier in the day and been told by the port supervisor to return at this time, and they were crossing at the prescribed place for such things. They were going to a port of entry, not crossing between ports as so many thousands have done in the current wave.

But things quickly went bad. Adlerstein, 31, an American working with a group giving legal assistance to migrants in Sonoyta, Sonora, was immediately detained by officers at the port, she said. One of them told her she was “alien smuggling.” They wouldn’t let her speak to her attorney and kept her in a cell at the port for four hours, she said.

“We were following the supervisor’s instructions. We couldn’t have done it more aboveboard. And I was arrested for human smuggling,” she told me Tuesday.

It’s the latest sign that official harassment of activists, attorneys and journalists along the U.S.-Mexico line has grown into a borderwide campaign since Scott Warren was arrested in Ajo in January 2018.

Warren goes on trial Wednesday, May 29, in Tucson’s U.S. District Court, accused of two counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiring to harbor illegal aliens. If convicted, he could face significant prison time.

His arrest seemed to spring from the priorities prescribed by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech at Nogales on April 11, 2017. That day he laid out a to-do list for federal law enforcement. At the top of the list: prosecuting “the transportation or harboring of aliens.”

Early last year, Warren’s arrest and indictment looked like a stretch of the law, 8 USC 1324, that prohibits bringing in or harboring undocumented people. Warren, a volunteer with the border aid group No More Deaths, says he simply allowed two migrants to stay in “The Barn,” a makeshift shelter in Ajo, as part of his humanitarian work in one of the most deadly stretches of the border. It’s what his conscience and religious beliefs require, he says.

But prosecutors will argue that he crossed the line into criminality.

Warren’s human-smuggling prosecution was unique in Southern Arizona. My colleague Curt Prendergast reviewed all 119 human-smuggling cases filed in Tucson’s federal court in the first half of 2018 and found that every case except Warren’s involved people accused of smuggling for profit.

Nevertheless, federal immigration officials have been increasingly wielding this argument against activists, journalists, lawyers and just plain residents in the border region. The bottom line seems to be to harass those who might conceivably be providing aid.

Mana Azarmi, an attorney at the Center for Democracy & Technology, says it “criminalizes compassion.”

The phenomenon started coming clear when last year’s first migrant caravan from Central America arrived at Tijuana in November 2018. Afterward, some American journalists and others who had accompanied the migrants reported being stopped repeatedly for in-depth questioning at border crossings and even being prevented from returning to Mexico.

It turns out, that was all part of a campaign coordinated by U.S. and Mexican officials. In March, the San Diego NBC affiliate, KNSD Channel 7, reported that Homeland Security had compiled a database of 58 people, 10 of them journalists, whom they termed “suspected organizers, coordinators, instigators and media.”

On May 9, the executive director of Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, Randy Howe, wrote in a letter to Azarmi and a consortium of concerned groups that U.S. officials took information from Mexican officials about who might be helping the caravan members, as The Intercept, an online investigative news site, first reported.

“A number of journalists and photographers were identified by Mexican Federal Police as possibly assisting migrants in crossing the border illegally and/or as having some level of participation in the violent incursion events,” he wrote. Later, he went on, “CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting.”

But the effort to sweep up whoever seems sympathetic to border-crossing migrants was taking even weirder and more ominous turns.

In February 2019, the top prosecutor in Marfa, Texas, Teresa Todd, was driving down a local highway when someone came out of the bushes and waved her down, the New York Times reported. Communicating across a Spanish-English language barrier, she figured out that the teen sister of the young man who had waved her down was in medical trouble.

It turned out it was a group of three Salvadoran siblings, and she took them into her car and started making calls, including calls to a friend who is the lawyer for the U.S. Border Patrol, she said. Before the friend answered, local sheriff’s deputies showed up, then Border Patrol agents. They took her into custody, detained her for 45 minutes in a holding cell, and seized her phone. All, she said, for stopping when someone in need waved her down on a local road.

Adlerstein came to Arizona last year as part of a master’s degree program in humanitarian aid through an international, university-affiliated program called Network on Humanitarian Action. She spent a month working with No More Deaths in Ajo, then started work with a small group of people on legal assistance for asylum-seekers, working with established programs like the Florence Project and Kino Border Initiative.

Knowing of Warren’s arrest and wanting to avoid the same fate, Adlerstein got prepared legally before she started helping people with “know your rights” sessions and similar aid, she said. She carried around a letter from an ACLU lawyer.

In November, she observed as a Guatemalan asylum-seeker was turned away and not given a chance to apply. In March, she and another volunteer observed another group of asylum-seekers approach the port, she said.

“They pulled us into secondary, took our passports for like half an hour and then said, ‘What you were doing could be construed as aiding.’ That was scary because of Scott.”

But of course, it is completely legal for foreigners to show up at a U.S. port of entry and request asylum, and Adlerstein said she was careful to follow them as an observer, not lead them to the port.

The May 5 incident was her fourth time observing asylum-seekers trying to apply at the Lukeville port. Neither she nor the asylum-seeker’s pro bono attorney, Sean Wellock of Missouri, would identify the person, but Wellock said the asylum-seeker is being detained in Arizona and has not yet had a “credible-fear” interview, the first big step in an asylum process.

For Adlerstein, the message was clear.

“This is an acceleration of a trend,” she said. “The whole thing is an intimidation tactic.”

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.

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