SALT LAKE CITY — Is caring for migrants a legally protected act of faith?
That remains unclear after a U.S. district judge declared a mistrial in a high-profile immigration case this week.
Scott Daniel Warren, a 36-year-old geographer in Arizona, faced felony charges for allegedly aiding two illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. He'd been arrested in January 2018 after Border Patrol agents observed him appearing to offer directions to the two men.
"Warren was charged with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants, which carries a 10-year sentence, and two counts of harboring them," The New York Times reported.
Warren, who volunteers for a religiously affiliated organization called No More Deaths, and his supporters argued that basic humanitarian values justified his actions and that he was protected by religious freedom law. They questioned why someone should be punished for saving other people's lives.
"Humanitarian aid is not a crime," the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement about the case, according to the Times.
Attorneys for the U.S. government, on the other hand, said Warren's goal was undermining immigration law, not protecting people in need. They argued legal action was necessary in order to ensure border security.
"This case is not about humanitarian aid, or anyone in medical distress," Nathaniel Walters, one of the prosecutors, told the Times.
Warren's case is part of the Trump administration's broader crackdown on illegal immigration. Since 2017, government officials have prioritized charging volunteers along the border, treating them at times like professional smugglers.
"In fiscal year 2018 there were more than 4,500 people federally charged for bringing in and harboring migrants. That is a more than 30 percent increase since 2015, with the greatest rise coming after (former Attorney General Jeff) Sessions' order to prioritize harboring cases," NPR reported.
Volunteers like Warren have also faced lesser misdemeanor charges stemming from leaving water, food or blankets in the desert for migrants to find.
In March, four No More Deaths volunteers were sentenced to probation and fined $250 each for "entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit and abandoning personal property," according to a Justice Department press release.
No More Deaths, also known as No Mas Muertes, originated in 2004 to serve illegal immigrants facing grueling conditions crossing the Arizona desert. Formally affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson since 2008, volunteers sometimes cite federal religious freedom law to defend themselves in court.
Warren did so in his case, explaining that he believes it's his sacred duty to serve people in need.
In May, "Warren testified that his actions that day were part of a sincerely held religious belief that all life is sacred, and that he was 'compelled' to provide aid to migrants, as well as search for their remains," The Tuscon Sentinel reported.
Many people of faith, as well as some religious freedom scholars, supported his claim, arguing that it's unlawful for the government to keep Warren from living out his beliefs.
"Warren's religiously motivated activities form the foundation of the government's prosecution under the harboring law. The basis for the charge against Warren as described in the criminal complaint include providing food, water, shelter and clean clothes to, as well as talking to, two undocumented migrants. These activities were clearly motivated by (his) religious faith, which requires him to care for people that he believes are in distress," reads a brief from legal scholars.
The Trump administration's efforts to prevent people and organizations from helping migrants make it seem wrong to love one's neighbor, said Teresa Todd, a city and county attorney in Marfa, Texas, who is under investigation for human smuggling.
"It makes people have to question, 'Can I be compassionate?'" she told NPR.
The U.S. is not the only country struggling to balance border security with humanitarianism. Amid a global refugee crisis, officials around the world disagree on whether we should prosecute those who break the law in order to save people's lives.
"Last year, France's highest constitutional court ruled that an olive farmer had not committed a crime when he smuggled dozens of migrants into the country," The Washington Post reported. "The dissident farmer was protected, the judicial body said, by the 'principle of fraternity' enshrined in the French constitution."
In Italy, a German boat captain will soon stand trial for helping asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea, the article noted.
These cases affect more than the individuals charged with violating immigration law. They also influence how government officials behave in the future, which Warren described as his key concern ahead of his trial.51 comments on this story
"To me, the question that emerges from all of this is not whether the prosecution will have a chilling effect on my community and its sense of compassion. The question is whether the government will take seriously its humanitarian obligations to the migrants and refugees who arrive at the border," Warren argued in a guest column for The Washington Post.
Warren's trial ended in a hung jury on Tuesday. Attorneys involved in the case will meet July 2 for a conference to discuss how to proceed.
"The U.S. attorney's office in Arizona did not immediately indicate whether it would seek another trial," The Washington Post reported Wednesday.