‘A drink of water could save a life.’ What Catholic social teaching says about the No More Deaths trial
On June 11, a jury in Tucson, Ariz., could not reach a verdict on whether or not Scott Warren, a high school geography teacher and humanitarian aid worker for the advocacy group No More Deaths, was guilty of aiding two migrants who had illegally crossed the border. Mr. Warren was arrested in early 2018 when he gave Kristian Perez Villanueva and José Sacaria Goday food, water and shelter while also allegedly providing directions on how to avoid U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints. A decision on whether or not prosecutors will seek a retrial should occur by July 2.
This is not the first time a member of No More Deaths has been targeted by the Border Patrol, said No More Deaths staff member Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler. In both 2005 and 2017, a member of the group was charged for transporting migrants, though in both of those cases, the charges were eventually dropped. She called the case against Mr. Warren this year “the escalation of a legal battle, like the U.S. government is trying to make an example of Scott.” She sees the trial as another expression of the Trump administration’s hostility toward migrants at the border.
No More Deaths regularly places jugs of water and food in highly traveled areas in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona for migrants. “Sometimes, a drink of water could save a life,” Ms. Orlovsky-Schnitzler said.
Around the same time as Mr. Warren’s arrest, No More Deaths posted a video that captured Border Patrol agents vandalizing a No More Deaths water supply cache. No More Deaths also released a report that alleges wide-ranging efforts by the Border Patrol to sabotage the group’s food and water stations. According to the report, around 3,500 gallons of water were lost between 2012 and 2015. Tensions have escalated between the Border Patrol and No More Deaths, and Mr. Warren’s trial became a focal point.
She called the case against Mr. Warren this year “the escalation of a legal battle, like the U.S. government is trying to make an example of Scott.”
America reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but the agency declined to comment on Mr. Warren’s case. A C.B.P. spokesperson did reply via email that in 2012 the chief of the Tucson Sector Border Patrol officially directed agents not to tamper with, vandalize or otherwise damage water stations. “The Tucson Sector has always maintained an open dialogue with the various faith-based and humanitarian organizations in southern Arizona,” the C.B.P. spokesperson said. “We share the view that crossing the border illegally should not be a death sentence. Unfortunately, the criminal organizations that smuggle humans and narcotics into the United States do not value human life, and migrants can often find themselves in a perilous situation.”
The C.B.P. statement did not address the consequences of assisting migrants.
The Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyerian Church and community member of No More Deaths, said that there is wide support for No More Deaths’ humanitarian work in Tucson. She helped organize an interfaith gathering on June 5 called Faith Floods the Courtroom, which filled the courtroom with clergy from a variety of faiths. “It was a time for religious leaders to show up and support Scott Warren,” she said. “It was also to make clear that we understand humanitarian aid to be a moral obligation and, frankly, a requirement of our faith.”
Ms. Harrington, who attended the trial, described an instance where the prosecution asked Mr. Warren whether or not he gave the migrants food or water. “These were questions that, if answered affirmatively, would be a criminal act,” she said. “For those of us who are Christians, these words echo so clearly the words of Christ from Matthew 25. For us, an affirmative answer means salvation.”
The question of a faith response to issues at the border has been on the mind of leaders in the Catholic community as well. At the 2019 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ General Assembly in Baltimore, Md., the Working Group on Immigration led by Archbishop José Gómez and Bishop Joe Vásquez presented their findings. The bishops reported a marked increase in migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border despite the Trump administration’s heavy focus on enforcement-only policies regarding migration—from 58,000 individual arrivals in January 2019 to 144,000 in May. A greater concern was an increase in family arrivals, including women and children, which jumped from 53,205 in March to 84,542 in May.
In a statement made on Oct. 6 of last year, Bishop Vásquez said, “Resettlement in our country is a way through which we live out our Gospel call to welcome the persecuted into our communities—individuals and families with no viable options to stay where they are or return home.”
At the panel for the Working Group on Immigration, Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, where No More Deaths makes its home, said, “There seems to be two paradigms when we speak about immigration issues. One is the political paradigm. The other, which I find is emerging more and more, is that of humanitarian crisis. I think there are those in the secular world who are really wanting to keep the focus on the political paradigm… I think the more authentic paradigm is the humanitarian crisis.”
“Resettlement in our country is a way through which we live out our Gospel call to welcome the persecuted into our communities—individuals and families with no viable options to stay where they are or return home.”
These two paradigms have come into conflict before in the world of Catholic social teaching, which affirms both the right of state sovereignty and the right to migrate. In the 2003 pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer,” the bishops of the United States and Mexico tackled this issue.
Daniel Cosacchi, a religious studies professor at Fairfield University, said that three important principles emerged from this letter. The first is the right for people to migrate to ensure the safety of their lives and, in particular, the lives of their children. The second is the right for a country to regulate its own borders and maintain sovereignty. The third is that countries should respect the human dignity of migrants.
“When they exercise their sovereignty, they have to do it with justice and mercy,” Mr. Cosacchi said. “The federal government only really recognizes the second principle. Catholic social teaching is much more complex than that.”
He criticized Mr. Warren’s prosecutors for wanting to punish him for adhering to Christian principles by giving out food and water. “Human dignity is so fundamental to what Catholic social teaching is all about. This is a person who is being prosecuted for upholding human dignity.”
Brianne Jacobs, an assistant professor of theology at Emmanuel College, said, “Basically, every principle of Catholic social teaching is being violated in the ways that the aid workers are being prosecuted and in the way that the border in general is being regulated.” She affirmed the importance of solidarity with migrants. “Scaring people from treating migrants as human beings is a violation of Catholic social teaching.”
On the conflict between state sovereignty and human dignity, she said, “It’s a false dichotomy. You can regulate your borders and do so with justice and mercy. You don’t have to regulate your borders with cruelty and inhumanity. There’s no need for that.”
“Scaring people from treating migrants as human beings is a violation of Catholic social teaching.”
An estimated 7,000 have died attempting to cross into the United States through Arizona over the last 20 years, according to the Border Patrol. Leo Guardado, assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and himself a migrant from El Salvador, said that “part of what’s at stake at the border is not so much the legality, but the humanity [of it].”
He recently wrote a paper for the Catholic Theological Society of America titled “Reimagining Community in the Shadow of Empire” where he criticized the treatment of No More Deaths and Mr. Warren. In the paper, he wrote, “Scott Warren’s trial is an illustration of the contestation of humanity and of the church’s participation in humanizing ministries, which have been increasingly targeted these past two years.”
“I think we need different frameworks for what’s going on at the border and across the world,” Mr. Guardado said. “We live in a globalized age. Yes, we have borders. Yes, we live in nation-states…. [T]his is where Catholic social teaching needs to create more room to think past the nation-state. If we think of ourselves as a global church, as a church that is not divided by nation-state boundaries, then we need to start acting like one.
“People die while we talk,” he said. “The church as the people of God are at the frontline of it…. [H]ow many [church leaders] are willing to embody the societal glimpses of the future they keep mentioning?
“What does it mean to embody the Gospel at the border?”