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The most important border stories of 2019

For much of 2019, the borderlands endured the fallout from decisions made years earlier, as the Trump administration pursued the Migrant Protection Protocols, attempted—and failed—to prosecute a humanitarian volunteer for harboring two men in the country illegally, and continued to pursue the president's quixotic promise to build a wall along the southwestern border. 

At the same time, Border Patrol agents found themselves in the spotlight because of bad behavior, including one agent whose text messages, uncovered as the agent was heading to trial for an assault charge, showed that he called people on the border "savages" and "subhuman."

And, in Pima County, Homeland Security officials continued to release immigrants, prompting Tucson and county officials to support ad-hoc shelters managed by Tucson religious organizations, including a Benedictine monastery, an effort that grew into a controversial plan to move the shelter to an used section of the county's Juvenile Detention Center. 

While the Trump administration pushed hard to pull money from the Defense Department, a private group led by ousted adviser Stephen Bannon tried to gin up money for a private border wall at an event, announced as a "Tucson town hall," that was neither a town hall, nor in Tucson. Rather the event was 20 miles south in Sahuarita, and closed to the general public.

We covered this event in "Bannon boosts 'private' border wall at Sahuarita event." 

The trials of No More Deaths

TucsonSentinel.com spent a lot of effort covering the separate trials of No More Deaths volunteers in 2019. Originating from incidents in 2017 and 2018, nine members of No More Deaths faced both misdemeanor and felony charges as the government appeared ready to clamp down on the group following years of detente between the organization and U.S. Border Patrol agents. 

In January, four members faced trial for misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2017 incident when they drove a vehicle into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a remote 800,000-acre wilderness area, in Southern Arizona and left water jugs, food, and other humanitarian supplies. After a short bench trial, the four volunteers—Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick—were found guilty by U.S. District Judge Bernardo Velasco on Jan. 18, who later sentenced each of the women to 15 months unsupervised probation and a $250 fine

Meanwhile, four other members, cited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers during a separate, but similar incident, were facing their own charges. However, weeks after the first trial, and days before Velasco announced the sentence, federal prosecutors announced on Feb. they would drop the misdemeanor charges, and instead, Caitlin Persis Deighan, Zoe E. Anderson, Logan Thomas Hollarsmith, and Rebecca Katie Grossman-Richeimer, would be fined $250. 

With the charges against eight members of No More Deaths put aside, federal prosecutors zeroed in on Scott Warren, a 37-year-old geography professor who was also involved one of the 2017 incidents, and also faced three felony charges after Border Patrol agents arrested him in Jan. 2018 at the Barn, a ramshackle building at outskirts of Ajo, Ariz., that's used as a staging-point for humanitarian aid efforts in the remote deserts that surround the unincorporated town, about 110 miles west of Tucson. 

Through the spring, federal prosecutors and Warren's defense attorney battled over Warren's cases, until May when U.S. District Judge Raner Collins oversaw a bench trial. 

During the short trial, federal prosecutors laid out a simple case against Warren, arguing that he drove a Dodge Ram pickup truck into Charlie Bell Pass, violating a federal law that limits traffic on administrative roads, and left one-gallon plastic water bottles, cans of beans, blankets, and other supplies near Charlie Bell Well, a remote water station established by ranchers that is now resupplied periodically for animals.

Defense attorneys, Greg Kuykendall and Amy Knight, laid out a more complex defense, arguing that Warren was protected by a law passed by Congress intending to protect religious actions. During the trial, we posted several reports, including "No More Deaths volunteer testifies leaving water for migrants is a 'sacred act'" which included Warren's testimony that his "motivation to act" comes from “a deep sense, and relationship” to the desert that surrounds Ajo, and that because dozens of people have suffered and died in that desert, their spirts "continue to dwell in that place."

Warren's misdemeanor case acted as a kind of dress rehearsal for his felony trial. In our story, "Prosecutors argue No More Deaths volunteer conspired to protect 2 men in country illegally," we reported how prosecutors argued that Warren engaged in "criminal conspiracy" to harbor two men at the Barn. As the trial unfolded, Warren again argued that he was trying to end suffering in the desert, while prosecutors argued that Warren was linked to the leader of a shelter in Mexico and was engaged in an attempt to "shield" two men from Central America from Border Patrol, along with a volunteer nurse. 

On June 7, the case was handed to the jury, who deliberated for days until they declared on June 11 they were deadlocked, leading to a mistrial. 

After the result, prosecutors announced they would again pursue Warren, leading to a second trial that began on Nov. 12. Unlike the previous jury, who took days to consider their decision, the jury in the second trial quickly returned a not-guilty verdict.  After the verdict was read, Collins also ruled on Warren's misdemeanor case, ruling that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected Warren from the charge of leaving humanitarian supplies.

Movement on the wall

After the Trump administration declared an emergency along the border, DHS and Defense Department officials announced plans to begin building border barriers along the three wilderness areas that run along the U.S.-Mexico border. TucsonSentinel.com reported on the initial plans, as well as the various legal fights that rocketed through the court system, and in August, we reported on plans to begin construction in our story "CBP to start building border barriers in Arizona wildlife refuges next week. Other news outlets mistakenly reported at the time that border-wall construction would be delayed for months.

This was followed by exclusive photos that showed the construction had begun, in our piece, "Border wall work started this week in Az's Organ Pipe Cactus Nat'l Monument."

We also published a report that construction was likely to damage up to 22 archaeological sites, in our investigative piece, "Investigation: Border wall construction threatens 22 Arizona archaeological sites." 

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While stories about the wall remained dominant, TucsonSentinel.com also reported on the discovery of multiple tunnels in Nogales, Ariz., including a 82-foot-long tunnel found by Homeland Security Investigations agents during a raid on Dec. 17. Illustrating that even as DHS officials attempt to lock down the border with a 30-foot-high wall, smugglers are finding ways around, or under it. 

Costs of immigration policies hit home

TucsonSentinel.com also focused on how immigrants, arrested by local and federal officials face enormous costs to mount a defense, including the rising costs of bonds set by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and immigration judges. 

One piece, based on a 18-month long study, completed through the UA's Binational Migration Institute and funded through the National Science Foundation, found that Pima County families can spend nearly $24,000, or more than a year's annual wages, on direct and indirect costs because of immigration cases. 

The piece, "Pima County families can spend $24k — often more than a year's earnings — to fight immigration cases" reported on how short and long-term costs pulls money from families, and immigration arrests operate like a "like a giant vacuum, sucking wealth and resources out of the community." 

We also investigated the rising costs of immigration bonds, highlighting the case of a Tucson woman, who faced a $43,500 bond before lawyer successfully argued the bond down to $1,500. Our exclusive report, "'Insane' immigration bonds: Spiraling costs, Trump policies strain migrant families," reviewed how bonds went from a median cost of $50 just a decade ago to nearly $8,000, a dramatic shift that comes even as money-making immigration detention facilities strain at their seams, and the immigration court system groans at the number of backlogged cases. 

Migrant Protection Protocols continue, and a fight over shelter space in Pima County

We reported in late December 2018 that the Trump administration was working on implementing the "Remain in Mexico" policy, otherwise known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. While the program has not been implemented in Arizona as it has in Texas, there are still signs of the program's consequences, as we reported in "Trump admin's 'Migrant Protection Policy' a study in irony at Az border," and "Fear & uncertainty: Asylum-seekers in limbo under Trump’s expanding ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy."

By April, it became clear that neither Border Patrol nor ICE could hold all the immigrants, mostly Central American families seeking asylum in the United States, and both agencies began releasing them directly to Catholic Community Services and other churches, who began operating a shelter out of the Benedictine Monastery in mid-town Tucson

Under pressure, and with a deadline to leave the space, CCS and officials with the City of Tucson and Pima County began seeking a new space, eventually settling on an unused wing of the county's juvenile detention center. However, the plan hit major turbulence as community members argued that the space was the wrong place for traumatized families, who were held in similar detention facilities operated by CBP and ICE. 

This ultimately came to a head on July 22, when the Pima County supervisors approved a plan to covert the space into a shelter, but not before opponents of the deal, including those who work with migrants, sharply criticized the plan, as we reported in "Pima supervisors OK converting juvie center wing to shelter for asylum-seekers." 

Our reporting on the issue was considered one of 24 "amazing stories" in a national year-end list published by BuzzFeed, written by Joshua Sterns, director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. 

Border Patrol culture under the spotlight

Meanwhile, reporting by ProPublica uncovered a Facebook group where Border Patrol agents joked about migrant deaths, as well as a "challenge coin" that made fun of efforts by the agency to deal with an increasing crisis along the border. 

In "Inside the secret BP Facebook group where agents joke about migrant deaths," ProPublica found that nearly 9,500 agents shared photos and memes that one University of Arizona researcher said represented a "pervasive culture of cruelty aimed at immigrants with CBP. This isn't a few rogue agents or 'bad apples.'" 

A few weeks later, ProPublica also discovered the existence of a "challenge coin," in the piece, "Border Patrol agents are passing around commemorative coin mocking care for migrant kids," The coin is a  part of a tradition of unofficial "challenge coins" — which generally outnumber official ones — which are common in the military and law enforcement as a way for members to celebrate achievements and build camaraderie," wrote Dara Lind in her piece. "The coin appears to poke fun at the fact that many border agents are no longer out patrolling and instead are now caring for and processing migrants — including families and children," she wrote. 

In Tucson, we reported on the text messages sent by Matthew Bowen, a Border Patrol agent accused of attempting to run down a Guatemalan man and then lying about it. In our piece, "BP agent, facing assault charge, called people on border 'savages' and 'subhuman' we reported on his messages, which included a racial epithet for border-crossers in text messages. In a move to keep the jury from seeing the messages, his attorney said the language used by the agent is "commonplace" within Border Patrol. 

Just before his trial was to begin in August, Bowen accepted a plea deal. 

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Construction vehicles and staged panels for the border wall along a two-mile stretch of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near Lukeville, Arizona about 110 miles southwest of Tucson, Aug. 20.

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