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Local Opinion: In Warren trials, humanitarianism emerged victorious

Local Opinion: In Warren trials, humanitarianism emerged victorious

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

The Trump administration has spent nearly two years trying to put humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren in prison for providing food and water to migrants braving some of the most dangerous terrain in the U.S. The government’s first attempt ended in a mistrial, and now the second one ended in a full acquittal. It’s a big win for Scott and his family — and a sign that the Trump administration needs to finally abandon its misguided attempt to criminalize compassion and basic human decency.

The political debate over immigration has sharply intensified in recent years, so it’s important to understand what kind of person the government has been targeting in the two trials. It’s also important to understand why faith-based organizations like the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, where I serve as the president and CEO, have long supported Scott and No More Deaths, a network of volunteers committed to compassion and justice.

Let’s start with Warren himself. He’s a professor who teaches geography at a local community college, not a politician. He’s a humanitarian who leaves food, water and blankets for migrants traveling through Arizona’s deadly Sonoran Desert. He has routinely alerted the Border Patrol to his work. He has never tried to hide it. He is, to his core, a kind, generous and brave man.

You wouldn’t know any of that from listening to the government prosecutors who previously attempted to convince a jury to put him in prison for up to 20 years — a sentence that would have left Warren in federal prison for most of his adult life.

Two juries have now rightly refused to buy into the government’s far-fetched narrative and the prosecution’s attempt to vilify both Warren and No More Deaths, an organization that was founded in 2004 with the singular goal of preventing more migrants from losing their lives during their attempts to reach the United States.

If there is any silver lining to these travesties, it’s that the trials have brought much-needed attention to the dire situation along Arizona’s border with Mexico, an unforgiving landscape where temperatures soar above 120 degrees during the day and plummet at night. At least 250 migrants have died of starvation, dehydration and exposure to the elements since 2001, and the true number is likely far higher. In the months immediately after Scott’s arrest in January 2018, 88 more bodies were recovered from the Arizona desert.

It may not be possible to prevent all of those deaths, but it’s well within our power to reduce them. That’s a deeply personal issue for me and the organization I lead. Warren and the other volunteers with No More Deaths believe it is not only possible, it is what must be done.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation in Tucson sponsors No More Deaths, the organization through which Scott and others charged for their humanitarian assistance volunteer (eight other No More Deaths workers have faced lesser charges because of their work). The spiritual leader of that congregation, the Rev. Bethany Russell-Lowe, testified at Scott’s first trial that, “all people are worthy of love, dignity, and respect.”

Indeed, the foundational texts of all major religions call for protecting those in most desperate need of help and assistance, and that’s exactly what Scott has been doing. During the first trial, Scott’s lawyer, Gregory Kuykendall, told the court that Scott’s faith compelled him to, “provide emergency aid to fellow human beings in need.” Those are the words of a person worthy of praise, not prison.

As Scott has written, “If they are thirsty, we will offer them water; we will not ask for documents beforehand.”

Sadly, the Trump administration disagrees. It has ripped children from the arms of their parents, prevented undocumented immigrants from showering or brushing their teeth, and created a culture where Border Patrol personnel can abuse those in their custody — and kill others — with impunity. All of that, and they are attempting to make compassion a crime.

But, the message two sets of jurors have now sent couldn’t be clearer: saving lives is something to honor, not punish. The administration’s long crusade against Scott is finally over; its attempt to punish others who devote their lives to saving lives should finally end as well.

Note: A previous version of this story included an author's tagline that asserted Rev. Morn was present for Scott Warren's retrial. She was unable to attend.

Rev. Mary Katherine Morn is the president and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which provides financial assistance to No More Deaths. 

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