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Court proceedings continue after arrests of No More Deaths volunteers

Members of the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths have faced 36 misdemeanor cases in the past 15 years brought by federal authorities. They have not lost a single one.

Attorney William Walker has represented the group in all 36 cases, but a recent round of arrests has put nine volunteers in limbo at a time when the relationship between No More Deaths and Border Patrol is perhaps more tense than ever.

Eight of the nine volunteers are facing federal misdemeanor charges; Scott Daniel Warren, the  ninth volunteer, is looking at a felony, accused of harboring undocumented immigrants.

"Although we have also had some strife with law enforcement, we have always gotten along more than we have fought them," Walker said. "Now, there's no way to reason with them."

Warren attended a Feb. 7 status hearing at the U.S. District Court in Tucson with his new lawyer, Gregory Kuykendall. Kuykendall declined to comment on the case.

Paige Corich-Kleim, another No More Deaths volunteer, attended Warren's status hearing with numerous other volunteers to show their support.

"It's upsetting because I think we have a really clear mission," she said, "and a lot of us have found (human) remains in that area, so it makes sense that we would put water and food out there. So for them (the volunteers) to be criminalized for that is really upsetting, and it fits into a trend of criminalization of migrants as well.

"People get felony and misdemeanor federal charges everyday for crossing the border. But this is kind of this escalation of that, where now they're also targeting the people who are trying to work with that population."

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Warren's next hearing is set for Friday, March 2, for a video deposition of material witnesses.

Walker said he could not disclose information on Warren's change in legal representation, citing  confidentiality. But he added his legal team plans to do everything they can to assist members of No More Deaths who have been charged.

"These people have done nothing wrong except be the best of us," Walker said of the volunteers. "(They are) the type of people who want to save lives no matter whose life it is, and we have always been that way."

Walker is representing the other eight No More Deaths volunteers charged with misdemeanors: Natalie Renee Hoffman, Oona Meagan Holocomb, Madeline Abbe Huse, Zaachila I. Orozco-McCormick, Caitlin Persis Deighan, Zoe E. Anderson, Logan Thomas Hollarsmith and Rebecca Katie Grossman-Richeimer. They are facing multiple charges of "driving on a wilderness area," "abandonment of property" and "entering a wildlife refuge without a permit" in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near Ajo on Aug. 13, 2017.

A status hearing for them is set for Friday, Feb. 23.

Despite the nine recent arrests, No More Deaths has continued its humanitarian work along the U.S.-Mexico border, but not without obstacles.

Last April, Corich-Kleim met with Cabeza Prieta management and she said "they were really hesitant to grant any sort of permission" to the group.

Corich-Kleim also attended a public meeting for land managers in Ajo a few weeks ago to discuss recovered human remains along that area. She said the land managers were intrigued by her methodology and data.

"Basically, (the meeting) told me they actually don't know how many people are being found dead on the land that they manage," Corich-Kleim said. "Which I think is really shocking, and I think kind of might be why they are really hesitant to work with us — because they themselves don't actually understand the level of this crisis."

Lee Sandusky, also with No More Deaths, said group members have been declined and "blocked" from receiving permits to enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.   

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Last summer, Cabeza Prieta officials added a clause in their permitting rules prohibiting the placement of leave food, water, blankets, medical aid, or any other humanitarian aid on the refuge.

Cabeza Prieta representatives declined to comment for this story, deferring questions to the Tucson offices of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Justice.

Attorney Walker said No More Deaths is not conducting illegal activity by leaving humanitarian aid in the desert for crossing migrants.

"It is also not against the law to provide water, to provide food, to provide medical care to migrants," Walker said. "That's not in furtherance of their illegal presence here. That's just saving lives. It's political neutral, it's immigration law neutral, it's what the Red Cross does and nobody blames the Red Cross for doing it."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News

William G. Walker has represented the No More Deaths organization for 15 years. Walker said out of 36 federal cases against No More Deaths, he hasn’t lost a single one.

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