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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Score one for human decency

Desert road near Nothing, Arizona.
Desert road near Nothing, Arizona. - Russell Wangersky

There is room for humanity after all. Who knew?

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the case of four women who were convicted of criminal charges after leaving caches of food and water in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve (CPNWR) in Arizona.

Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick were charged in December 2017 and faced jail sentences as long as six months. The women were part of No More Deaths, a Tucson-based group that was founded after changes in immigration enforcement in California and Texas altered the route taken by illegal immigrants. The new route, through southern Arizona desert, had no natural water sources and heat topping 44 degrees.

The four were charged after the U.S. government changed the rules for permits to enter the reserve, requiring permit holders to agree that it was prohibited to leave “water bottles, water containers, food, food items, food containers, blankets, clothing, footwear, (and) medical supplies” inside the reservation.

Unwilling to make that commitment, the four were caught in the reserve without a permit. Their argument now is that blocking their ability to leave the caches is a violation of their religious freedom.

“Although defendants do not claim to be members of mainstream or traditional congregations, they do argue that their volunteer activities with No More Deaths are exercises of sincerely held religious and spiritual beliefs,” the judge wrote.

There’s some dry humour in the judge’s verdict, especially when it comes to the government’s claim that it had a right to restrict that religious freedom: “The government argues on appeal that the burden on defendants’ religious exercise is justified by a ‘compelling interest’ in furthering ‘the national decision to maintain (the CPNWR) in its pristine nature.’ The government, however, has not established that providing an exemption to defendants would frustrate that interest. The evidence at trial established that the CPNWR is a former active military bombing range that has unexploded munitions strewn about.”

There was also the problem that the group brought out as much trash as they brought in as supplies, and kept their vehicles on established access roads, while, the judge pointed out, bored patrol vehicles regularly go off-road in the area.

But there’s no humour in this part of the verdict: “The government seems to rely on a deterrence theory, reasoning that preventing clean water and food from being placed on the refuge would increase the risk of death or extreme illness for those seeking to cross unlawfully, which in turn would discourage or deter people from attempting to enter without authorization,” the judge wrote.

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

That’s especially the case because the deaths have been continuing, despite the “deterrence.” Close to 3,000 people have died in the Arizona desert since the year 2000.

The judge quashed the convictions — and here’s another interesting point.

Several times, the judge referenced the same religious freedom justifications brought out in a different decision, known as the Hobby Lobby case.

Hobby Lobby is a case much loved by the American right, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that a private corporation couldn’t be forced to provide contraceptives in employee health plans if the corporation’s owner was opposed to contraceptives for religious reasons. (That’s only a thumbnail version of the case.)

Strangely, there has not been an outpouring of support for the No More Deaths group being able to save illegal immigrants’ lives as the result of the application of the same much-vaunted religious freedoms.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky


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