Judge reverses convictions of aid workers who left food, water for immigrants in desert

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
A sign is posted along the El Camino Del Diablo roadside at the western entrance to Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. |

Four aid volunteers who left food and water for immigrants who illegally entered the country by way of the Arizona desert in 2017 had their criminal convictions overturned Monday by a federal judge who ruled that the government’s prosecution violated their religious freedom rights.  

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez, an Obama appointee, ruled that the four volunteers serving with the No More Deaths ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tuscan were engaging in a “sincere” exercise of their religious beliefs.

The volunteers — Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco — left food and water in an area of rugged landscape in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near the Mexico border where immigrants have been known to die of dehydration and exposure to extreme temperatures. 

Last January, they were convicted by a federal magistrate of violating regulations governing the refuge and faced fines and probation since they entered without out a permit, drove on restricted-access roads and left food and water. 

However, the defendants argued that their actions were taken with the goal of “mitigating death and suffering” and that the actions were exercises of religion protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“The Court finds that Defendants demonstrated that their prosecution for this conduct substantially burdens their exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs,” the ruling states. “[A]nd that the Government failed to demonstrate that prosecuting defendants is the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling governmental interest.” 

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge spans over 800,000 acres in the Sonoran Desert. 

As millions of immigrants have illegally entered the U.S. through the southern border in the past three decades, No More Deaths claims that the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is an area where as many as 155 migrants have died since 2001.  

No More Deaths says the refuge is one of the deadliest migration corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border. The area is especially dangerous because of the lack of publicly accessible roads and no natural water sources.

In 2017, the year in which the four volunteers were charged, No More Deaths reports that 32 sets of human remains were found in the refuge. 

According to the ruling, the federal government argued that it wanted to prevent clean water and food from being placed in the refuge so as to not increase the risk of death or extreme illness for those seeking to cross unlawfully. 

“In other words, the Government claims a compelling interest in preventing Defendants from interfering with a border enforcement strategy of deterrence by death,” Marquez ruled. “This gruesome logic is profoundly disturbing. It is also speculative and unsupported by evidence.”

Marquez contends that the government was unable to produce evidence showing that the news of the 32 sets of human remains found in the desert in 2017 deterred unlawful entry. 

“This ruling reaffirms what No More Deaths has always maintained: providing life-saving humanitarian aid is never a crime,” volunteer Alicia Dinsmore said in a statement. “The reversal of the convictions is a victory for all people of conscience and righteousness who seek to end the death and suffering in the borderlands.” 

The reversal of the four volunteers’ convictions comes after fellow No More Deaths aid volunteer Scott Warren was acquitted last November on felony charges of harboring illegal immigrants. An outcry was raised after it was reported that Warren could have face up to 20 years in prison

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of the religious freedom nonprofit law firm Becket, which helped craft legal arguments in Warren’s case, explained in a Twitter thread that there are “several important lessons” to learn from these cases. 

“First, this was a foolish prosecution,” Goodrich wrote. “Giving water to those who thirst is not a crime. Just consult Matthew 25:35 and common sense.”

“Second, laws like RFRA are essential for religious freedom,” he added, pointing out that RFRA was used to defend the Little Sisters of the Poor in their cases against the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. “It was undisputed in this case that the volunteers committed the ‘crime.’ Their only protection was RFRA.”

Goodrich stressed that “religious freedom isn’t partisan.” 

“Sometimes it may look ‘conservative’ (Hobby Lobby) or ‘progressive’ (this case),” he wrote. “But the core principle is bipartisan. Every human being has a thirst for the transcendent, and the government (under both parties) must respect that.”

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