Arizona State University instructor Scott Warren, known for his work with humanitarian aid groups along the Arizona-Mexico border, was arrested by Border Patrol agents last week on a felony charge of harboring undocumented immigrants.
It's the latest clash in an escalating tension between aid groups in the desert and federal agents.
The arrest happened within hours of the aid group, No More Deaths, complaining that Border Patrol agents were vandalizing water bottles intended to save migrant lives in the desert.
In this 2011 video from the group’s complaint last week, a Border Patrol agent pours out gallons of water volunteers left for migrants while he mocks the aid workers.
"Make sure you get a good shot, I’m picking up this trash someone left on this trail. It’s not yours is it? All you gotta do is tell me," he said as he poured out the jugs of water.
Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid volunteer, was arrested by Border Patrol in AZ's West Desert, where 58 human remains were recovered in 2017 alone.— No More Deaths (@NoMoreDeaths) January 22, 2018
In the NMD's series, The Disappeared, we show how BP policies have created a crisis of death and disappearance in the US Southwest. pic.twitter.com/dHrt32EhDe
Aid groups and the federal agencies on Arizona’s border have co-existed in an uneasy peace for nearly two decades.
No More Deaths volunteers have largely been left alone while working to provide water, first aid and a resting place in the border region for migrants who cross the border illegally.
"Well this is a little bit like asking Donald Trump what he’s in favor of. We have no idea. We get a different sign from the government depending on who we talk to, when we talk to them and what the circumstances are," said attorney Bill Walker, who is defending Scott Warren.
The 35-year-old geography lecturer at ASU works with No More Deaths, an activist group created in 2004 to address the rapidly growing number of migrant deaths on Arizona’s border.
According to federal court records, Warren was arrested last Wednesday after two migrants crossed the border illegally and sought shelter at an aid station in Ajo known as the Barn.
Two Border Patrol agents had been watching the place and reported the migrants told them they found the place online and knew they could get food, water and aid there. One of the migrants told the agents Warren provided them food and water for three days.
He was charged with harboring undocumented immigrants, a federal felony.
Just the day before that, No More Deaths had publicly accused the agency of trashing its emergency supplies and showed videos of agents destroying their aid packs.
In the 2011 video segment, a female Border Patrol agent unceremoniously kicks over gallons of water and then continues on her foot patrol.
The agency has said it does not surveil humanitarian aid camps, but the criminal complaint on Warren said two agents were surveilling the Barn when they spotted Warren and the two migrants.
It’s a fine line, one that an agency spokesman characterized this way when interviewed last summer:
"You know, we understand their concerns yet at the same time, we have a job to do at the Border Patrol," said spokesman Vicente Paco at the time.
That was after agents arrested four people at a No More Deaths camp in Arivaca, including a convicted drug trafficker.
If the agency is now targeting aid workers, it’s not deterring No More Deaths volunteers. Jeff Reinhardt has worked with the group for eight years.
"Our intention as an organization is to continue to provide humanitarian aid in that corridor and to provide it in a way that we can work with land agencies, work with border patrol or if they want to continue this policy of interfering with humanitarian aid, without their cooperation," Reinhardt said.
Last week’s arrest isn’t Warren’s only run-in with federal agents.
Last June, a Fish and Wildlife Service ranger found him driving a pickup truck on Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge near Ajo. Warren allegedly told the federal ranger he didn’t see signs saying he had driven into a wilderness area.
He was already due to appear in court on that misdemenaor when he was arrested on this new felony.
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge manager Sid Slone said his officers have begun citing people for leaving garbage and detritus in the refuge. The refuge allows Humane Borders to maintain a single water station along The Devil's Highway on the refuge but does not allow volunteers like No More Deaths to leave migrant aid supplies. He said the rule has always been in place but only recently has become an issue.
Spokespeople for the Border Patrol declined to be interviewed and referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. A spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office also declined an interview. Neither agency would state whether policies have officially shifted on humanitarian aid groups.