Joel Rose / NPR
For years, volunteers have left food and water in remote areas of the desert along the US-Mexico border. They say that they are trying to save the lives of migrants who are making the dangerous crossing. But the government argues that these volunteers encourage illegal immigration.
Now, many volunteers risk prison when they are sentenced Friday.
"What we have seen in the past two years is a real escalation," said Catherine Gaffney, spokeswoman for the No More Deaths activist group.
Four of the group 's volunteers were convicted of crimes after leaving water and other supplies in the Cabeza Prieta National Refuge near Ajo, Arizona. They risk up to six months in prison.
At their trial last month, prosecutors accused the volunteers of giving "false hope" to migrants.
More difficult border crossings
In recent decades, migrants have turned to more rugged areas of the border, crossed by a larger border patrol and miles of fences.
Hundreds of migrants die each year, mainly because of dehydration caused by overwhelming heat or hypothermia as temperatures drop at night. Migrant aid activists say that they are trying to prevent these deaths by leaving water and other supplies in the desert.
Joel Rose / NPR
"I do not think I'm doing anything illegally," said volunteer John Orlowski. He lives in Ajo, a small town about 40 kilometers from the Mexican border, surrounded on all sides by the Sonoran desert.
It's a landscape at once magnificent, says Orlowski, and hostile.
He recently left California to settle in Arizona, where he was previously involved in searching for lost hikers in Yosemite National Park. Now, Orlowski is helping migrants who are trekking north of Mexico. He says it's dangerous even for a mountaineer and an experienced hiker like him.
"I would not be able to make this trip," Orlowski said. "In summer it is impossible to carry enough water."
The volunteers are lost
But now, law enforcement is raging against these volunteers
"I think they mean well," said Art Del Cueto, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border patrol officers.
But Del Cueto thinks these volunteers are misguided because some of the material they leave is in the hands of drug traffickers and human traffickers. And Del Cueto said that troubled migrants could activate one of dozens of rescue beacons located in southern Arizona to ask for help.
"We answer many calls from illegal aliens in stressful situations and difficult medical situations," said Del Cueto. "And we are the ones who are properly equipped to save and save them, we do not mistreat anyone."
Nevertheless, migrants' aid volunteers question the border police's commitment to saving lives. They report multiple incidents in which officers have emptied water jugs that have been left in the desert.
Last year, the No More Deaths group released this video of a border police officer standing over a row of plastic water jugs aimed at migrants .
"By picking up this garbage, there is someone left on the trail," says the officer while pouring water into the jar.
Volunteers who have been caught leaving water and food to migrants have big problems. Four No More Death volunteers were sentenced after leaving supplies in the Cabeza Prieta shelter. Judge Bernardo Velasco found them guilty of abandoning property and entering the shelter without authorization. They are in danger on Friday.
Four other volunteers of No More Deaths were also charged with crimes for their volunteer work at the Cabeza Prieta shelter in 2017. But last week, the group announced that prosecutors had agreed to drop criminal charges and that Activists were now liable to civil offenses punishable by a fine. $ 250 each.
Amanda Lee Myers / AP
Another No More Death volunteer, Scott Warren, should be tried in May on charges of a crime. The government says it was harboring undocumented immigrants. Warren says he's helping migrants in distress. If he is found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
"The government has decided to respond by criminalizing the giving of a gallon of water to a person who is dying of thirst," said No More Deaths spokeswoman Catherine Gaffney.
Gaffney claims that these volunteers did not commit any crime. And his group is fearless.
"We go out again every day and we put water on the trails," she said. "And we will continue our work to prevent more deaths."