During the summer of 2017, when temperatures reached triple digits in Arizona, four women drove to a vast desert wilderness along the southwestern border with Mexico. They brought water jugs and canned food — items they later said they were leaving for dehydrated migrants crossing the unfriendly terrain to get to the United States.
The women were later charged with misdemeanor crimes. Prosecutors said they violated federal law by entering Cabeza Prieta, a protected 860,000-acre refuge, without a permit and leaving water and food there. A judge convicted them on Friday in the latest example of growing tension between aid workers and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Aid workers say their humanitarian efforts, motivated by a deep sense of right and wrong, have been criminalized during the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal border crossings. Federal officials say they were simply enforcing the law.
The four women, all volunteers for the Arizona-based aid group No More Deaths, were convicted after a three-day bench trial at a federal court in Tucson. They could face up to six months in federal prison.
Their trial coincided with a partial government shutdown that has now entered its 30th day, the longest in the country’s history. Negotiations have stalled as President Trump stands firm on his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, citing a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border.
In his verdict, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco said the women’s actions violated “the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature.” Velasco also said the women committed the crimes under the false belief that they would not be prosecuted and instead would simply be banned or fined.
Catherine Gaffney, a volunteer for No More Deaths, said the guilty verdict challenges all “people of conscience throughout the country.”