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Justice Department Attempts to Suppress Evidence That the Border Patrol Targeted Humanitarian Volunteers

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Ryan Devereaux reports in the Intercept:

FOUR VOLUNTEERS WITH a faith-based humanitarian group drove onto a remote wilderness refuge in southern Arizona last summer hoping to prevent an unnecessary loss of life. A distress call had come in, a woman reporting that two family members and a friend were without water in one of the deadliest sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. For hours, the volunteers’ messages to the Border Patrol went unanswered. With summer in the Sonoran Desert being the deadliest time of year, they set off in a pickup truck, racing to the peak where the migrants were said to be.

Once on the refuge, the volunteers were tracked by federal agents, beginning a process that would lead to federal charges. Now, more than a year later, they each face a year prison, and Trump administration prosecutors are fighting to keep the communications of law enforcement officials celebrating their prosecution from becoming public.

The legal wrangling began this week, when the volunteers’ attorneys filed a series of motions urging Arizona Magistrate Judge Bruce G. Macdonald to dismiss the charges against them, citing allegations of selective enforcement and violations of international law, due process, and religious freedom. Attached to the motions were several exhibits, including text messages between federal law enforcement officials. Justice Department attorneys quickly moved to have the motions sealed, but not before The Intercept downloaded them from Pacer, the public-facing repository for federal court records.

The exhibits include text messages between a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and a Border Patrol agent, in which the Fish and Wildlife employee declares “Love it” in response to the prosecution of the volunteers. Described in the text messages as “bean droppers,” volunteers with the group No More Deaths and their organization are referred to by name in the communications between federal law enforcement officials, who describe, with apparent glee, the government’s “action against them.”

Within hours of the exhibits being submitted Monday, Trump administration lawyers called on Macdonald to seal the text messages, on grounds that they contain “sensitive law enforcement information.” The government prosecutors also requested the sealing of a blank Fish and Wildlife permit application — available online — and documents turned over via a Freedom of Information Act request, citing the same justification. Attorneys for the defendants then filed an opposition motion, arguing that the government’s descriptions of the materials “strain credulity.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona and the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector declined to comment on the motion to seal and claims made by the defendants’ legal team, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

In addition to the exhibits the government would like to have sealed, the motions filed this week provide the latest evidence that law enforcement actions taken against No More Deaths, an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tucson, are part of a campaign targeting the organization. In a sworn declaration, Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropologist and director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, an internationally renowned organization that repatriates the remains of migrants who die in the desert, described a meeting last summer in which a senior Border Patrol agent angrily told her that because of the bad press No More Deaths stirred up for his employer, the agency’s plan was to “shut them down.”

In an interview with The Intercept on Wednesday, Reineke described the meeting as “disturbing,” saying it spoke to a broader breakdown between nongovernmental organizations responding to the humanitarian crisis on the border and federal law enforcement, including a Border Patrol workforce emboldened by an administration set on pushing an already punishing immigration enforcement apparatus into overdrive.

Big and Wild

Currently, nine volunteers with No More Deaths are fighting federal charges for their work providing water and medical care in the Sonoran Desert, historically one of the most lethal migrant passageways on the planet. The most serious of those charges, including harboring and conspiracy, have been leveled against Scott Warren, an instructor at Arizona State University. Warren stands accused of providing two undocumented men with food, water, and a place to sleep over three days. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted. In addition to the felony case, Warren is one of nine No More Deaths volunteers to be hit with federal misdemeanor charges for humanitarian work on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge over the last year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself describes Cabeza Prieta as “big and wild” and “incredibly hostile to those that need water to survive,” with a “56-mile border with Sonora, Mexico, [that] might well be the loneliest international boundary on the continent.” According to the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County, 33 sets of human remains were found on the refuge last year alone, adding to the more than 8,000 sets of human remains found along the border since the U.S. government began funneling migrants into the desert over two decades ago.

In the case in question, four No More Deaths volunteers — Caitlin Deighan, Zoe Anderson, Logan Hollarsmith, and Rebecca Katie Grossman-Richeimer — say they were doing everything in their power to prevent that grim toll from expanding when they were targeted by law enforcement.

On July 19, No More Deaths received a distress call from a woman in Phoenix reporting that two of her cousins and a friend were in need of help on the refuge. Volunteer Jesse Ferrell filled out the intake form. The woman told Ferrell that the group had built a bonfire to attract help the previous night and that by the following morning, they had run out of water. The men called the Mexican consulate in Tucson, the woman said, and were told to call 911. They did so, she added, but were told by the operator that nothing could be done. They would need to communicate with an immigration-specific office.

In Arizona, the Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Initiative requires 911 dispatchers to transfer calls from migrants in the desert to a Joint Intelligence and Operations Center in Tucson. For years, the MMI program has been managed by two agents in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector: Mario Agundez and Pedro Alonso Jr. The documents submitted in court this week show Ferrell first emailing Agundez at 1:57 p.m., then again roughly a half-hour later, at which point Agundez was told that the migrants were at a well-known peak as recently as the previous night, and that they were out of water. The email thread indicates Agundez first responded to No More Deaths more than seven hours after the group’s initial email was sent.

According to Reineke, slow responses to distress calls have become standard with the Border Patrol, and with Agundez specifically. In the declaration she submitted this week, Reineke explained that in years past, her organization “worked closely” with agents from the Border Patrol’s Search, Trauma, and Rescue teams, otherwise known as BORSTAR. “Over time, however, we learned that BORSTAR was generally unresponsive to calls for distress,” Reineke said. “Even in cases of a distressed migrant who had been seen within an hour of the rescue call.”

It was the same in cases where Border Patrol was provided a map of the migrant’s last known location, Reineke added. “BORSTAR would not initiate search and rescue operations — at times affirmatively denying the request to us in writing, and at other times simply not responding to the request.” Based out of the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County, the team at Colibrí stopped forwarding distress calls to BORSTAR in 2015, Reineke said, in part because of a “particularly poignant” case in which Agundez reportedly refused a desperate wife’s request to initiate a search for her husband.

In place of BORSTAR, Reineke said, Colibrí began forwarding its distress calls to No More Deaths. Recently, she explained, she has observed a marked change in the Border Patrol’s treatment of the organization. On June 12, 2017, the Border Patrol raided a camp that No More Deaths has used to provide medical aid for migrants for more than a decade, following a tense three-day standoff and leaving with five undocumented men it had tracked to the location in tow. As The Intercept reported at the time, No More Deaths volunteers saw the operation as a message from the Border Patrol that things would be different under the Trump administration. Reineke happened to have a prescheduled meeting with Agundez and his partner, Alonso, a week after the raid took place.

“I expressed my anger and dismay that agents would raid a humanitarian aid station in the desert during a heatwave,” Reineke said in her declaration. Agundez’s response was “angry” and “defensive,” she said. “He referred to the negative press against the Border Patrol generated by No More Deaths, and said they had ‘gone too far,’ that ‘they have messed with the wrong guy.’” Reineke added, “He told me the agency had intentions to ‘shut them down.’”

In an interview Wednesday, Reineke told The Intercept that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 September 2018 at 8:42 am

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