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Tucson interfaith rally draws scores to support activist Warren

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim, Tucson, Arizona, speaks at the Faith Floods the Courtroom Interfaith Prayer Service in front of the US Court in support of Dr. Scott Warren, on trial for rendering humanitarian aid to migrants. (Debe Campbell/AJP)

Updated 6.13.19 

Dozens of faith leaders from across Southwestern borderlands, including two local rabbis, rallied June 5 in front of the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Tucson in solidarity with Arizona State University geography instructor and activist Scott Warren, Ph.D. A volunteer with the Tucson-based aid group No More Deaths, Warren was arrested Jan. 18, 2018, in Ajo, Arizona, a town about 40 miles north of the border, at a house used by aid and rescue groups to stage work in the surrounding Sonoran Desert, including providing food and water on migrant routes. Two migrants taking refuge there also were arrested.

With the jury deadlocked 8-4 on all three charges after three days of deliberation, U.S. District Court Judge Raner C. Collins declared a hung jury Tuesday, setting a July 2 hearing on the possibility of a retrial.

No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson with a mission to end death and suffering of migrants in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Warren, whose trial began May 30, pleaded not guilty to three felony charges: one count of
conspiracy to transport and harbor, and two counts of harboring undocumented immigrants. This is the first time in more than a decade that a Southern Arizona border-aid volunteer has been charged with smuggling humans. Warren faced up to 20 years in prison.

Spanning 120,000 square miles along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Sonoran Desert is a sparsely populated, harsh environment without water. The desert south and west of Tucson, 70 miles north of the border, is among the busiest and deadliest crossing points from Mexico. Tucson-based Humane Borders data counts 3,339 migrant deaths across southern Arizona between 1999 and 2018.

U.S. Code 1324 on bringing in and harboring certain aliens, applies criminal penalties, in section A-iii, to any person who “knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection, such alien in any place, including any building or any means of transportation.”

Rev. Alison Harrington of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church emceed the 8 a. m. interfaith rally, saying, “They may call this a crime of harboring, but we call it acting on the principles of our faith. If they are hell-bent on criminalizing kindness and compassion, then charge me. I am guilty.”

“Laws are meant to protect the vulnerable,” said Verlon Jose, vice-chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a reservation that is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. “If someone shows up at your door, you give them food and water.”

“These migrants striving for a better life are not different than us,” said Rev. Madison T. Shockley II of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California. “They are the same as us. Every human, not every citizen, has the inalienable right to freedom and pursuit of happiness. The question is, are they human? But the real question being decided today, is not are they humans, but are we humans?”

“We cannot pretend everything is okay,” said Rev. Matthew Funke Crary of Borderlands Unitarian Universalist Church in Amado, Arizona, halfway between Tucson and the Mexican border. “Today, kindness and compassion are on trial. And, there are more people dying in the desert right now.”

Buddhist monk Ajahn Sarayut Arnanta of Wat Buddhametta in Tucson concurred. “It is our right by the constitution to practice what we believe. The practice of compassion and loving-kindness in this crisis are under attack. Acts of compassion and loving-kindness should never be a crime.”

“Dr. Warren provided humanitarian aid to those in need. Islam commands and supports taking in the oppressed, those escaping conflict and feeding the hungry,” said Imam Watheq Alobaidi of the Tucson Muslim Community Center. “May God bless our refugees and those who assist them,” he added, noting that Adam was the first refugee on earth.

“The Torah demands you must know the heart of the stranger,” said Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim in Tucson. “We will act so any stranger will find our open hearts and hands to love, cherish, give food and water. We laud the actions taken by Dr. Warren and link our souls to him in unity.”

“Locking someone up doesn’t fix what they did,” Rabbi Hazzan Avraham Alpert of Tucson’s Congregation Bet Shalom told the AJP, noting that the Torah calls for repairing the harm done. “But the idea that someone shouldn’t give essential help to someone in need is absurd. All people need to wonder what are the core values that our teachings show us and realize that human issues transcend boundaries. Who comes in the country is a separate issue from whether we can give people humanitarian aid.”

Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, a descendant of Filipino and Chinese immigrants and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, California, called for repentance for “Those who choose to criminalize the honor of saving the life of a stranger.”

Moving across Congress Avenue to the steps of the courthouse, the group of about 100 participated in a water litany, chanting “water is life.” Water was blessed, and a prayer said over Warren, who joined the rally before entering the courthouse for the day’s trial. Rev. Bart Smith of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, Tucson, and Rt. Rev. Bob Jones, retired Episcopal Bishop of Wyoming, blessed the crowd with sprinkled water. Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank of Catalina Methodist Church in Tucson gave a closing prayer and Rev. Neal Anderson of Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California, gave a closing benediction.