You would think that a humanitarian group called No More Deaths (I mean, no one’s pro-death...right?) wouldn’t be too controversial, especially when the initial founders of the Tucson-based volunteer group included the city’s Roman Catholic bishop, rabbis, Unitarian Universalists, and other spiritual leaders.
But it is in 2019, apparently, especially when the deaths that No More Deaths are seeking to prevent are those of refugees trekking through the harsh Arizona desert.
No More Deaths was the understandable response in 2004 to a humanitarian crisis on American soil — a tremendous spike in the number of migrants from Mexico and Central America who’d crossed the border without authorization and tried to reach civilization (and dodge U.S. Border Patrol agents) by hiking across barren borderlands dotted with scrub brush and scorched by the desert sun. The previous year, the corpses of more than 200 migrants who’d succumbed to thirst, heat, or hunger had been found in the American desert — their skeletal remains often lacking any identification, their families knowing nothing of their fate.
“It has become unconscionable to continue to sit back and read in the paper or hear on TV ... that right out here in our back yard, these people, these migrants are dying,” one of the organizers, Richard Boren, told the Arizona Republic in 2004 during No More Death’s first action, a 75-mile awareness march from the U.S.-Mexico border to Tucson. “It’s a humanitarian crisis.”
That crisis received a humanitarian response. No More Deaths opened stations called Arks of the Covenant under tarps where volunteers offered water bottles and first aid. Volunteers often raced ailing migrants back to hospitals in Tucson for emergency treatment. It’s hard to quantify, but the group was undoubtedly saving lives. Then, things started getting complicated.
If you’ve spent the 21st Century in America as a sentient human, you won’t be surprised to learn that tensions between No More Deaths and the Border Patrol and other authorities — not to mention anti-immigrant citizen vigilantes roaming the same dusty lands — increased in tandem with American xenophobia and talk-radio blather.
It started in 2005 when two volunteers rushing sick, vomiting immigrants to the hospital were arrested by a Border Patrol agent and hit with felony charges that were only dismissed after large-scale protests under the banner “Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime.” Another volunteer was charged a few years later with “littering” for leaving out water bottles — also eventually dismissed.
Last January, one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, with tensions on the border ratcheted up and Border Patrol told by the administration to in effect “take the gloves off,” No More Deaths released a video stretching from 2010 into 2017 showing Border Patrol agents destroying water bottles that group had left out for migrants. Just eight hours later, as the video was going viral, Border Patrol arrested a No More Deaths volunteer — a 35-year-old Arizona State University academic named Scott Warren — and charged him with alien smuggling, a felony.
Since Trump was elected president, amid the echoes of “Build the Wall” chants and his rhetoric tagging Mexican migrants as rapists and criminals, nine No More Death volunteers have been criminally charged. The first four to stand trial — all young women — were convicted last week on federal misdemeanor charges stemming from an 100-degree-plus day in the summer of 2017 when they drove water jugs and canned food to stations in the Cabeza Prieta refuge. The magistrate who ignored the women’s pleas that keeping migrants alive is central to their religious conviction could sentence them to up to six months in prison.
So much, I guess, for religious freedom in Donald Trump’s America. No More Death’s spokeswoman, Catherine Gaffney, told reporters last week’s verdict challenges “people of conscience throughout the country.”
I tell this story now for two reasons. First, of course, it’s an outrage in its own right — and one particularly sordid plot development in a tragedy that’s well-known to anyone who’s turned on a TV or even checked their phone in the two years and two days that Donald Trump has been the 45th president of the United States. Young children ripped apart from their mothers and fathers at the southern border. A tent city in the sweltering Texas desert for imprisoned teens, a gulag right here in America. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told by Team Trump that “the shackles are off,” busting into courthouses and school yards, arresting migrants with no criminal record and spreading a climate of fear.
It’s important now to take a step back and view the present crisis — the federal government mostly shut down for more then a month, 800,000 workers not getting a paycheck, and a president refusing to fix it unless his entire demand for $5.9 billion physical border wall or barrier is agreed to — in the context of these barbaric policies, which are the translation of a hate-filled political campaign into governmental action.
As president, Trump is certainly expected to use the full clout of the White House to demand an agenda that would make Americans' lives better. He’s provided no evidence that an overpriced border wall is such a policy. Unauthorized border crossings have plunged in recent years, and those making the dangerous hike are increasingly women and children fleeing murder, rape and other violence in Central America — the textbook definition of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in America.
In other words, the obvious cruelty of Trump’s immigration program — whether it’s kids in cages or arresting faith-based humanitarians in Tucson — isn’t an unfortunate byproduct of necessary federal actions. No, the cruelty IS the policy — Trump’s desperate effort to cling to the adoration of his huddled masses, the ones chanting “Build the wall! Build the wall!” It’s a chant that animates Trump supporters not just at his Nuremberg-spiced rallies but also Indiana Catholic high school kids who shouted it at a predominately Latino basketball team — the exact same thing that happened at a Wisconsin girls' soccer game, at a high school football game in Utah. And also in Connecticut, and in California, and so on, and so on.
In Donald Trump’s America, the phrase “build the wall!" isn’t a line-item in an infrastructure package, and it’s not even really about border security. It’s become an avatar for racism, xenophobia, and the worst kind of bullying — a rallying cry for a lynch mob of the spiritually weak. It is in this dangerous climate that Trump is holding 800,000 federal workers and their families hostage while chanting at Democrats to “build the wall!”
America’s problem right now isn’t the number of unauthorized refugees crossing the border, nor is it an old-fashioned budgetary impasse. No, America’s crisis is a growing cancer of immorality — the very thing that Trump’s zeal for the $5.9 billion (for starters) border wall represents. In the past, Democratic members of Congress have supported immigration plans that included money for walls or fencing. But that was a very different time. If House Democrats and the party’s filibuster squad in the Senate allocate even $1 to support the cruelest, most central element of Trump’s creeping fascism, they aren’t fixing the real crisis, the moral crisis. They will be feeding the cancer, helping it metastasize.
It’s important to remember this because the big story — as this week, and the shutdown, drags on — will be increasing political and pundit pressure on the Democrats to back down, to somehow meet Trump halfway (which usually means more than halfway). Is there any way for responsible adults to cut a deal without the stench of the president’s wall? Of course. There are several ways to spend money that would make the border region more safe yet also more humane — a vast expansion in the number of immigration judges, for example, so that asylum cases don’t drag on for years. The challenge for Democrats is to package what the southern border really needs to make it look like a compromise that Trump and his supporters would want.