Volunteers like John Hunter have been watching the thermometer closely these days. After an unusually mild May, triple-digit heat has come to California’s barren border trails — and with that comes death.
For 20 years, Hunter’s nonprofit organization has traveled the same desolate desert routes along the U.S.-Mexico border in the Imperial Valley, leaving behind stashes of life-saving water for migrants, hikers or anyone else in desperate need of hydration.
“We’re in the desert when no one wants to be,” said Hunter.
There’s something else they’ve been watching: a legal drama unfolding in a Tucson federal courtroom. This past week, a fellow desert border volunteer, Scott Warren, has been on trial on allegations of harboring two unauthorized immigrants at an Arizona desert outpost.
Warren, 36, says he merely gave the Central Americans shelter, food and medical aid when they arrived unannounced. The Trump administration says Warren’s actions went beyond mere humanitarian aid and were instead part of a conspiracy.
The seven-day trial, which went to a jury Friday, is reviving the broader debate over migrant aid: When does altruism become aiding and abetting?
The trial comes on top of separate misdemeanor charges against Warren and nine other volunteers for leaving stashes of water in a protected wildlife preserve without permits — precisely the kind of work that has been performed for decades by California organizations such as Border Angels and Hunter’s group, Water Station.
While the prosecutions in Arizona are concerning to those who operate in California, volunteers say they are not especially worried about ending up on the wrong side of the law themselves.
Water Station has secured official permits from the federal Bureau of Land Management to place its water containers throughout the Imperial Valley. Additionally, the group operates in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on a memorandum of understanding with park rangers, said Hunter.
“I don’t think (the prosecutions) will affect us,” Hunter said during an interview last week from his home in Escondido. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. Our permits are still valid.”
Similarly, Border Angels places water jugs in the desert east of San Diego with permission from BLM officials, said Hugo Castro, director of Border Angels’ operations in Baja California.
But lately Castro finds himself having to quell concerns from the many one-time volunteers who travel from around the world to make a water drop with Border Angels. Many of them are college students.
“They are kind of afraid and ask us what the danger is of being arrested,” Castro said.
Castro assures them not to worry. Still, he said the message the Trump administration is sending is clear: “The government is criminalizing humanitarian aid.”
The morning of Jan. 17, 2018, the Tucson-based nonprofit No More Deaths published a report that documented the frequent destruction of the water jugs the group leaves throughout the southern desert for passing migrants. One of the major perpetrators of the vandalism, the report said, was the Border Patrol.
The report included video footage of Border Patrol agents dumping out water from plastic gallon jugs and another agent kicking jugs over. The video went viral that day.
Hours later, two agents set up surveillance on a ramshackle dwelling known as “the Barn” in the small town of Ajo. The building was used as a stopover point and operations base for border volunteer groups in the area. There, the agents saw Warren, a prominent No More Deaths volunteer, and two men suspected of being in the country illegally.
More agents were called in for the takedown, and Warren and the migrants were arrested.
Warren was charged with felony conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens and two counts of harboring.
According to court records and testimony, Warren said he arrived at the Barn laden with groceries and was surprised to see the two migrants standing in the doorway. Kristian Perez Villanueva, 23, of El Salvador, and Jose Sacaria Goday, 21, of Honduras, asked for shelter, and Warren — who does not own the property — agreed to let them stay.
Warren called a medical professional in Tucson, who advised the men stay off their feet for a day or so to recover from dehydration, exhaustion and blisters on their feet.
Warren came and went, spending most of his time at his nearby home in Ajo and teaching a class at the Tohono O’odham Community College.
He returned to the Barn on the 17th to prepare for a group of college students from Flagstaff, finding the migrants still there.
Border Patrol officials said they had been searching for the two unauthorized immigrants. They had apprehended a migrant the day before, who had told agents that he’d been traveling with two Central American people who decided to separate from him. They had told the man that they were going to get picked up in Ajo and smuggled north toward Phoenix.
Warren’s attorney, Gregory Kuykendall, argued that text messages between the agents don’t mention the pretext for “watching the barn” and instead react with surprise and glee when the surveillance team notifies of the migrants’ presence.
“2 toncs at the house,” one of the agents reported, according to court records. Another responded: “What!?!?!?!?!?! Nice!”
The meaning of the term “tonc” — sometimes spelled “tonk” — is widely debated. It has at times been used as an acronym for “territory of origin not known” or “temporarily outside native country,” or a slang term for the sound of a flashlight hitting the back of a head.
During the surveillance before the arrest, agents saw Warren outside pointing north to mountain ranges in conversation with the two migrants. Prosecutors argued Warren was giving them information on routes and how to circumvent Border Patrol checkpoints.
Warren testified that he was orienting the men, telling them if they ever got lost or needed help to head toward state Route 85 by keeping one mountain on their left and one mountain on their right.
Warren’s attorney argued that the Border Patrol went after Warren as retaliation. A judge denied his motion to dismiss the case on grounds of selective prosecution.
Prosecutors said the agents’ motives “were purely to thwart illegal immigration, not to infringe upon the defendant’s constitutional rights.”
The prosecution also argued that Warren had conspired with Irineo Mujica, director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras who ran a migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Sonyota. Text messages revel the migrants made contact with Mujica about transportation, prosecutors said. Warren and Mujica had also been in contact days earlier. Warren testified that the contact was about searching for remains in the desert.
Mujica was arrested a few days ago in Mexico on unrelated charges relating to the transportation of Central American migrants.
A thin line
Groups that operate along the California border say they do so with the bounds of the law at the forefront of their minds — but it can be a fine line at times.
“We don’t aid and abet, we try to save their lives,” said Hunter.
At least 17 migrants died in the Imperial Valley desert last year, Hunter said, up from five recorded the previous year.
“We’re prepared for a bad summer this year,” he said.
Hunter started Water Station in 2000. Operation Gatekeeper, the federal campaign to harden the border with fencing and law enforcement personnel in San Diego, had pushed migrants east to the Imperial Valley, and deaths were spiking.
It may have seemed like an odd role for Hunter, a physicist and defense consultant. His brother is former congressman Duncan L. Hunter and his nephew is current Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Alpine — both staunch supporters of border security and immigration enforcement.
Hunter said he is also politically conservative, but the humanitarian issue was something he couldn’t ignore.
The group secured permits to place 400 water stations — large blue containers with water bottles stored inside — on BLM land in the area. Only about 150 or so stations are actually erected though. Flags raised 30-feet in the air signal to the thirsty from a distance. Hunter said his brother helped obtain the permits early on.
Water Station, which has a 10-year agreement in place ending in 2025, is the only such group with official authorization on BLM lands in California, said BLM spokesperson Martha Maciel.
The flags aren’t allowed in Anza-Borrego, per the agreement with the state park.
The situation can get murkier when volunteers encounter border crossers.
“I suspect we walk on chalk legally,” Hunter said of certain instances.
Volunteers are instructed to call Border Patrol or 911 if they come across a migrant in distress. They are told that driving a migrant away, particularly north, would be breaking the law.
When faced with the situation in reality, it can be a difficult boundary to process.
“There are cases when I cry, I try to understand why this is happening. Why we cannot put them in our trucks to a safer place,” said Gerardo Campos, a leader with Aguilas del Desierto, a San Diego-based volunteer group. “The rules and law are pretty weird.”
Translated to “Eagles of the Desert,” the group organizes search parties for lost migrants — oftentimes after being contacted by family members from outside the country. Other times, volunteers are looking for remains, sometimes years old.
When they encounter border crossers, volunteers supply them with food, water, supplies and medicine. Sometimes nurses or paramedics are on the trek, and they are able to treat the migrants with intravenous fluids.
“If we feel like they are strong enough to keep on going, we’ll let them go. If we see they’re in danger, then we’ll call 911 or Border Patrol,” Campos said. “But we still ask them if they want us to do that. We don’t cross that line. It’s their right to decide.”
Castro, who has led several water drops for Border Angels recently, said the same kind of limited interaction occurs when they encounter border crossers.
“We leave water right there, say ‘God bless you,'” Castro said. “We don’t provide rides, there is no more discussion.”
Characterizations of the relationship between Border Patrol and the various volunteers groups in California are mixed, but interactions generally seem to be cordial, even thankful at times as volunteers have had to rescue agents in tight spots and visa versa.
The Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector said its leadership periodically meets with non-governmental organizations — or NGOs — calling them an “important partner” and “a valuable resource by assisting migrants in need.”
“Agents in SDC do not interfere with the activities of NGOs so long as they operate in a legal manner,” said Supervisory Agent Theron Francisco, an agency spokesman.
In the El Centro Sector, which covers the Imperial Valley, Border Patrol officials said agents have on many occasions given their own water and food to help individuals they’ve encountered. “All life is precious and we will always do our best to preserve it,” officials said.
As for operations in Arizona, Campos said Aguilas members have used the Barn on previous missions, but since the arrests they’ve stayed away from the landmark.
“We’re very careful,” he said.
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