A federal judge has found four women guilty of entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit as they sought to place food and water in the Arizona desert for migrants.
The four convicted women, who are volunteers from a group named No More Deaths, include Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick.
Hoffman was found guilty of operating a vehicle inside Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, entering the federally protected area without a permit, and leaving water jugs and cans of beans there in August 2017. The others were found guilty of entering without a permit and leaving behind personal property.
According to the Arizona Republic, the case stemmed from an encounter with an FWS officer on Aug. 14, 2017. The volunteers were dropping off one-gallon plastic water jugs and canned beans in a protected wilderness area in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona.
One officer from the FWS testified during the trial that none of the four women had filed the necessary permits required to access the area.
“The Defendants did not get an access permit, they did not remain on the designated roads, and they left water, food, and crates in the Refuge. All of this, in addition to violating the law, erodes the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco wrote in his decision (pdf).
Velasco also blamed No More Deaths for failing to warn their volunteers about the full consequences of violating the refuge’s regulations.
“No one in charge of No More Deaths ever informed them that their conduct could be prosecuted as a criminal offense nor did any of the Defendants make any independent inquiry into the legality or consequences of their activities,” he wrote in the order.
“The Court can only speculate as to what the Defendants’ decisions would have been had they known the actual risk of their undertaking,” he added.
The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is along 56 miles of the Mexico-United State border. Any individual of 18 years old or over is required to obtain an access permit to enter the refuge, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).
The visitor needs to print two copies of the permit, one for the vehicle and one to keep with themselves, according to the FWS website.
The Jan. 18 verdict is the first conviction against humanitarian aid volunteers along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2009, when a federal judge found another No More Deaths volunteer guilty of littering for dropping off water jugs at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the Arizona Republic reported.
Massive Catch of Illegal Aliens
Days before the verdict, a group of 376 Central American migrants surrendered themselves to the Border Patrol in Arizona on Jan. 14, after tunneling beneath the border wall near San Luis, Fox News reported.
— CBP Arizona (@CBPArizona) January 18, 2019
The tunnels, about a few feet long, were reportedly dug by smugglers under the steel border.
“Almost all were families or unaccompanied juveniles,” the CBP Arizona said in a Twitter post.
— CBP Arizona (@CBPArizona) January 18, 2019
“In my 30 years with the Border Patrol, I have not been part of arresting a group of 376 people,” CBP Yuma Border Sector Chief Anthony Porvaznik told ABC News.
“That’s really unheard of,” he said.
Wall to Prevent Unnecessary Deaths
For decades, the desert where the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is located has been one of the most deadly areas for migrants trying to enter America illegally.
According to Humane Border, a Tucson-based group that compiles data and logs it on the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants website, the remains of at least 3,011 dead migrants have been recovered in southern Arizona between 2001 and 2018.
Some groups and local residents have been aware that a border wall may help to prevent these tragic deaths.
Migrants flee via Arizona’s desert route and die horrible deaths. In order to circumvent the coyotes, many take great risks. 1.) overheating, starvation, dehydration; 2.) Execution (not paying cartel fees) 3.) human trafficking. A border wall WILL help deter this journey!
— USARampart.com (@UsaRampart) August 3, 2018
“Migrants flee via Arizona’s desert route and die horrible deaths. In order to circumvent the coyotes, many take great risks. 1.) overheating, starvation, dehydration; 2.) Execution (not paying cartel fees) 3.) human trafficking,” wrote USA Rampart in a tweet. “A border wall WILL help deter this journey!”
@POTUS Does anyone remember the 3,00 deaths on the Arizona Desert since 1998 that could have been prevented with a wall? I lived in Tucson several years and do know about them picked off the desert every week. @TommyThomason35
— Tommy Thomason (@TommyThomason35) January 5, 2019
A Tucson resident who named himself as Tommy Thomason on Twitter also expresses similar support for a border wall and thinks it will prevent the death in the desert.
“Does anyone remember the 3,00 deaths on the Arizona Desert since 1998 that could have been prevented with a wall? I lived in Tucson several years and do know about them picked off the desert every week,” he wrote in a Twitter post.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.