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Crackdown On 'Border Angels'


According to the U.S. Border Patrol, more than 7,500 people have died attempting to cross the U.S. southern border in the last 20 years - 283 died last year. But the actual number is likely much higher because nobody knows how many migrants have died and are never found. Groups of volunteers have been working to prevent some of these deaths. They leave water or clothing or first aid supplies in remote areas along the border.

In Arizona, Scott Warren, a member of No More Deaths, has been on trial in federal court. He faces three felony counts, including conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. If convicted, he could serve up to 20 years in prison. Other border activists are watching this case closely, including our next guest. She is the director of the Water Drop Program for an all-volunteer group called Border Angels which is based in San Diego. And Jacqueline Arellano is with us now.

Jacqueline, thanks so much for talking to us.

JACQUELINE ARELLANO: Thank you for contacting me.

MARTIN: So Scott Warren was arrested in 2017. I just wonder what you make of the charges against him. And how are you talking about this with other Border Angels volunteers?

ARELLANO: It has been weighing really, really heavily on us. We have looked up to No More Deaths for years. We have been in solidarity with them well before this ridiculous case came to be.

MARTIN: So let me just ask you, though - philosophically, how do you understand what you're doing? Because there are those who obviously think that you are promoting this irregular, dangerous attempted migration rather than just trying to mitigate the harm of it.

ARELLANO: I think those folks are really sorely underestimating the human will to survive and the desperation that these people are in. Regardless of all of the prevention-through-deterrence tactics like the walls and the increased militarization and having to cross dozens of miles through this inhospitable desert, people have continued to migrate. So regardless of whether we put water out, people are going to do it. And if we don't put the water out, more people are going to die. So it seems really simple to me.

MARTIN: What are the relationships or interactions - if we can maybe put it that way - between your organization and the Border Patrol? I'm assuming you all encounter each other.

ARELLANO: Yes. So previously, Border Patrol has observed us and kind of observed from a distance, occasionally acknowledged what we're doing. But since about, you know, 2016 and more so since the trial, there has been a lot more deliberate and unnecessary contact. So if we're out hiking in the desert, almost every single time, a Border Patrol agent makes it a point to drive up to us sometimes, you know, in a really erratic curve or overly fast manner and make contact with us. And it's never anything aggressive. It's just kind of this ramping up of letting us know that they're watching us, essentially. Where we're experiencing more pushback is at the ports of entry. But that's a different conversation.

MARTIN: So what end in sight do you see or hope for? I mean, do you envision a time when you won't feel you have to leave water in the desert?

ARELLANO: I hope we get to the point that this work becomes unnecessary and that there is a pathway to asylum because that is what we're seeing people fleeing from their countries is to reach safety. And I am hoping for a world where that doesn't have to occur, where people don't have to risk their lives and often lose their lives in order for a chance at one. But until then, as long as people are dying in the desert, we're going to be out there.

MARTIN: This Jacqueline Arellano. She's the director of the water drop program for Border Angels. That's an all-volunteer nonprofit that advocates for human rights and humane immigration policies with a special focus on issues related to the U.S.-Mexican border. And as we mentioned, they leave water in the desert for people who are traveling and may need it. Jacqueline, thanks so much for talking to us.

ARELLANO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.