Criminalization of Humanitarian Aid: Par for the American Course


Warren is not contesting that he offered aid. He is part of the humanitarian group No More Deaths, which seeks to mitigate the brutalities of the landscape crossed by those fleeing north from South and Central America. They provide water, food, clothing, and a place to sleep when needed. Federal officials accuse Warren and the group of attempting to conceal the migrants they help from Border Patrol agents, hence the harboring charges. Warren, through his defense attorney, has said he made no efforts to hide the migrants. (See the report on the trial from the Arizona Republic, from which much of the narrative details come.)

Seen through the narrow lens of current law, this trial is about the interpretation of Warren’s actions. Did he go beyond the provision of aid and harbor two men who had crossed into the United States? How the jury answers that question will determine Warren’s fate.

But we need to see these charges through a much wider lens. They are tied to a concerted effort by the federal government to shut the border. Shutting the border, however, is not a legal option, so officials are seeking to make crossing from the south as dangerous and life-endangering as possible. The Trump administration is essentially giving both the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement wide latitude both to harass and arrest undocumented immigrants, while tightening rules governing the refugee and asylum processes. The Warren arrest is tied to two-and-a-half-decade program that has been meant to force migrants to rely on more difficult paths for entry. Started under Bill Clinton and continued through the Bush and Obama administrations, the Prevention through Deterrence program concentrated Border Patrol resources “at the most heavily crossed points,” which would then “shift migrant traffic into remote areas where migrants would not only be easier to spot but also be forced to traverse terrain so brutal that they would simply stop trying.”

The efforts, of course, have not worked. Migrants — most of whom are refugees not just from violence but from environmental, economic and family disasters — have continued to head north and will continue to do so, because the conditions in their home countries are so dire they feel they have no choice.

This is not speculation. If you talk to enough undocumented immigrants, listen to their stories, you realize that they are making a bet — get through the difficulty of crossing and, even if forced into the shadows in the United States, they see a better and safer existence than what they have left. They see the odds as being in their favor.

Given this, it is difficult to judge the Prevention through Deterrence program and more recent efforts to criminalize the provision of aid by entities like No More Deaths as anything more than abject and arbitrary cruelty. The human beings making their way north are treated as the problem, as if they are criminals seeking to undermine the United States. The approach is consistent with Trump’s language — his comparison of immigration to an infestation — but it also is consistent with something much broader that goes beyond Trump.

If we widen the lens beyond immigration, we can see that this approach to immigration control is part of a larger cultural cruelty that grants those of us with some level of privilege to separate ourselves from those in need. Immigration, racial politics, homelessness, guns, the impact of the climate crisis — on all of these issues, we can see this bifurcated approach in action.

Think about how we discuss the violence in America’s cities, which is relatively low by historical standards. It is “black on black crime,” a problem of the residents’ making, and not the result of social policies that divide us by race and class, that ensure that poor communities remain poor. Our response should be to end this de facto segregation and to remake an economy designed to produce losers; instead, we treat gun violence in cities like Camden or Chicago as local viruses and impose a kind of quarantine on those communities in the form of aggressive policing that looks far more like a military occupation than the kind of policing we see in more affluent suburbs.

Or, consider the theoretical nature of the debate over the climate. We tend to discuss the crisis as if it is still in the offing, ignoring that poor communities, in the United States and around the globe, are being ravaged by drought and flooding, partly because we have consigned the poor to live in vulnerable areas but also because we have no real interest except when a catastrophe hits in what is happening in those communities.

These connections might seem strained, but they make sense if you look below the policy and try to understand our mindset as a larger culture. This can be shown most clearly by looking at the issue of homelessness, which I’ve spent a lot of time writing about over the last decade.

Ginia Bellafante, writing in The New York Times last week, describes efforts by otherwise liberal and progressive urban residents to crack down on homelessness in their communities.

In San Francisco “where the median home price is $1.6 million,” she wrote, the homeless lived in “deplorable conditions” and yet “the city’s resistance to providing help and basic necessities in the encampments there qualified as ‘cruel and inhuman treatment,’ which was in line with violations of international standards of human rights.” The report, she says, elicited little response outside of the city. The American political establishment said nothing — even though the number of homeless Americans remains in the 3 million range (about 550,000 on any given night, which experts often say means that six times that number of Americans could be homeless at some point during the year).

Months later, in fact, the compassion deficit surrounding the issue of homelessness revealed itself with a bold clarity in San Francisco. When plans were announced for a social services center for those with nowhere to live, to be built on a parking lot, neighboring residents responded with a crowdfunding campaign that quickly raised more than $100,000 for legal fees opposing the facility.

This attitude is fairly consistent — Bellafante also describes efforts in New York to prevent the construction of shelters, and elsewhere. The reasons for this are “rooted not just in a willingness among so many people to disregard the issue but in a hostility, sublimated or otherwise, toward the very poor that percolates even in some of the most liberal quarters of the country.”

I saw this in conservative Lakewood, N.J., where the township and Ocean County south to close an encampment of homeless who were squatting on little used public land, offering no alternatives but to move on to other areas. (A court settlement closed the encampment in exchange for housing, but it ultimately proved only a temporary solution and a new encampment opened in a more accepting neighboring community.)

I saw this in New Brunswick, a Democratic bastion and home to Rutgers University. The city attempted to ban panhandling, and students sought to keep the homeless from using the university library, which is open to the public.

San Francisco, Denver, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Florida. Our efforts to address homelessness tend to focus on the punitive — installation of spikes, fences, and restrictive benches, bans on providing food, public camping, panhandling, etc. And when here are efforts to construct needed housing — whether temporary shelters or permanent and supported housing — we fight them.

Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who runs WIN, a social-service agency that manages shelters, told Bellafante that “People will throw everything including the kitchen sink into their opposition of homeless shelters which is at its core fear-fueled ignorance. The raising of the concern isn’t where you see the hypocrisy, it is the lack of desire to address the concern that reveals the hypocrisy.”

It’s more than hypocrisy, I think. It is an ingrained revulsion of the poor and the other, an archaic and no-longer-useful tribal attitude that allows us to pretend that we can protect ourselves without addressing the truly large-scale dangers we face. No shelters in my back yard. Close the borders. Quarantine the dangers.

This is the atmosphere in which the Scott Warren trial is taking place, one in which the humanity of our actions is less important than some short-term, pragmatic goal. The decision to charge Warren flows from this, and our silence in the face of his arrest — and the assaults on immigrants — is a black mark on our nation.