January 27, 2006

Humanitarian Aid Volunteers Face Possibility of Prison

By Kaira Espinoza
El Tecolote

A trial that could set a precedent for volunteers who offer humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants has been postponed until after a federal judge in Tucson, AZ decides whether or not to dismiss the charges.

The case involves volunteers Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, who were arrested in July 2005 by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The volunteers were taking three dying migrants to the hospital. Strauss and Sellz, volunteers with the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, say they found the men with severe symptoms of dehydration. The volunteers called a nurse and a doctor who, after listening to the results of a field examination, advised them to take the migrants to Tucson to get medical help. As a result, Strauss and Sellz were charged with two felonies: “transportation in furtherance of an illegal presence in the United States” and “conspiracy to transport in furtherance of an illegal presence in the United States.” If convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison.

At issue is whether Border Patrol agents had understood the formal agreement reached between humanitarian group, No More Deaths and the Border Patrol in earlier meetings.

Because the migrants were only being taken to a Tucson hospital, Strauss and Sellz, both 23, thought that they, as well as the migrants, were legally protected. It turns out they weren’t and they were all arrested. One of the most severely ill migrants later testified at his deposition that without the intervention of the volunteers, he would have been unable to get medical help and most likely would have died.

Strauss and Sellz have rejected a plea bargain that would have required them to admit guilt. The two maintain that humanitarian aid is never a crime, “If you find someone that is sick and dying in the desert, it’s not just a legal question, it’s a moral question. We don’t feel like what we did is a crime,” says Strauss. According to an article published in the Arizona Daily Star, the parents of both Strauss and Sellz are very supportive. “I see nothing wrong with providing food, water, and medical assistance,” Sellz’s father told the newspaper.

According to a motion to dismiss, filed by their attorneys, even if the actions of the volunteers are considered illegal, they should not be convicted. Attorneys are basing this on the fact that Strauss and Sellz attended medical and legal trainings conducted by No More Deaths in which they were ensured that the services for which they were volunteering – including the transportation of undocumented migrants for necessary medical treatment – were approved by the U.S. Border Patrol and were not in violation of the law. But when El Tecolote contacted the Tucson district U.S. Border Patrol, Supervisor Gustavo Soto stated otherwise, “It is illegal for anyone to transport undocumented persons regardless of the reason,” adding that if anyone encounters an undocumented person in need of medical care, “the appropriate response would be to contact 911 and get the proper authorities there.”

In response to the case, local San Francisco allies formed The Bay Area Alliance for Justice in the Desert. Chairwoman Susan Leal and other members of the Alliance are urging U.S. Attorney Paul K. Charlton to drop the charges. “Unless you’re Native American, we’re all immigrants,” says Ana Rizo, California organizer with the National Farmworker Ministry.

Supporters are visiting www.nomoredeaths.org to sign an online postcard requesting that the charges be dropped.

Meanwhile, legislation passed recently by the House would make it a criminal offense for anyone to “direct or assist” someone they know to be an illegal immigrant. If approved, the crime would carry with it a fine and the possibility of jail time. The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill next month.

Reprinted from El Tecolote (http://news.eltecolote.org/news/).

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