To even a casual observer of American history, it’s obvious we’ve long had a problematic deficiency of empathy in this country.
From slavery to the genocide of Native Americans, Jim Crow, segregation, Japanese internment, persistent discrimination against minorities, women and LGBTQ people, and systemic poverty and food insecurity in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we, as a society, are well-practiced in not really giving a crap about our fellow human beings.
But, our penchant for nonchalant inhumanity has taken a darker turn recently, with the criminalization of compassion along our southern border.
This issue goes back before the current administration, to presidencies of both parties. In 1994, under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. Border Patrol enacted a strategy to “shift the flow” of migrants into the harshest landscapes along our southern border, so that “illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain.”
Francisco Cantú, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent, told Vox in 2018 the “policy of prevention through deterrence — pushing those crossing out from the heavily patrolled urban areas to the remote areas of the desert — serves to weaponize the landscape … that’s why people are dying in the desert.”
Over the last 25 years we have intentionally driven people fleeing violence, poverty and starvation, into the most dangerous territory on our border. The results have been inhumane and unconscionable. Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofits La Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights) and No More Deaths estimate the remains of at least 7,000 people have been recovered along the southwest border over the last 20 years. The medical examiner in Pima County, Arizona, alone has recovered 2,816 “undocumented border crosser remains” since 2000.
These are women, men and children, fleeing in fear and hunger to one of the wealthiest, and supposedly most Christian, nations in the developed world. And they’ve been intentionally pushed into the desert to die of starvation, exposure, thirst and at the hands of evil actors who value profit more than life (you could say they’re good capitalists).
Very few Americans have paused to care about or for these people. But, those who have dared to care now face prosecution for having the audacity to give a damn when 7,000 human beings are left to die and rot in the desert.
In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ injustice department expanded the definition of “harboring” undocumented migrants to include acts of compassion, such as leaving water for those who may otherwise die of thirst, or picking up migrants in need of medical care. Sessions morphed such acts of natural, and Christian, compassion into “aiding or assisting criminal aliens to enter” the U.S., and ordered prosecutors to make such cases a priority. The result: in FY18 4,532 people were charged for bringing in and harboring migrants, a 30 percent increase since 2015.
When U.S. District Court Judge Bernardo Velasco handed down four misdemeanor convictions in January to people who had left food and water in a desert nature preserve known for claiming the lives of migrants, he complained their jugs of water eroded the area’s “pristine nature.” Apparently, to Judge Velasco, the bones of women and children are natural and pristine.
Four more members of No More Deaths also were charged, and the ninth, in court this week, is Scott Warren, a 36 year-old teacher in Ajo, Ariz. Warren faces up to 20 years in prison because two undocumented immigrants were found in a camp from which he delivered water to trails near Ajo, where 250 migrants have died since 2001.
Warren was arrested shortly after No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos published a report and video alleging Border Patrol agents destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left to prevent migrant deaths.
Warren has claimed the government is violating his right to religious freedom by “criminalizing his spiritual belief that mandates he help people in distress,” according to NPR. Not surprisingly, the same administration that has repeatedly used “religious freedom” to deny civil rights to LGBTQ people has dismissed any compelling Christian interest in giving food, water and medical aid to prevent migrants fleeing rape, domestic abuse, endemic poverty and gang violence from becoming desiccated corpses in the desert.
Even a happenstance encounter with someone in need of medical aid can lead to arrest. In Marfa, Texas, county attorney Teresa Todd was detained, had her phone seized for 53 days and awaits possible indictment for stopping her car when she was flagged down by a migrant whose sister was dying. Her crime: she let them rest in her car on the side of the road, while she called U.S. Border Patrol to ask how she should proceed. They responded with a county deputy, and corrected her unlawful empathy for a young woman who was reportedly near death by the time she reached the hospital.
Todd told NPR the episode “makes people have to question, ‘Can I be compassionate’?” The answer for us all, under our current regime, is “No.”
We’ve codified our lack of empathy, weaponized it to drive migrants to their deaths and to prosecute anyone who stands in the way. The administration that has capitalized on a supposed Christian identity will not hesitate to arrest the Good Samaritan, and leave the battered traveler to die in the desert.