No More Deaths and the Righteousness of Civil Disobedience at the Border

Fences stop illegal border crossings. Not entirely; some people go over or cut through the fence. But, extraordinary efforts notwithstanding, fencing deters around 90% of illegal border crossings. These reductions are associated with reductions in crimes in those areas where fencing is emplaced. This benefit is typical of security measures, such as padlocking shed doors. To be sure, padlocks can be removed with bolt cutters. But most people who find locked doors go no further than that.

Some have suggested that, since fencing is not maintained where there are few or no people, this security measure drives migrants to where the terrain is most perilous. There, they say, people are at risk to die from the elements. As reported on this blog (“The Border in 2014 … and Now“), illegal border crossings are associated with a high human cost. Ergo, they contend, fencing is immoral. The same argument can be made about watchtowers and watchmen, of course. People who intend to break the law avoid authority and its structures. If people engage in dangerous behavior to avoid being detected while breaking the law, then who is responsible for that?

For most people making the trek to the US on their own, seeing miles of fencing in either direction is an effective deterrent. They only knew to avoid ports of entry (since they have no legitimate reason to cross, they knew to avoid authority); not really knowing what to expect, they could not have expected security fencing. The amalgam of fences, steel barriers, and concrete walls, sometimes with razor wire crowning their tops, is an impressive sight. Fencing and walls are unwelcoming and many migrants turn back. However, many other migrants never encounter these structures because human traffickers lead them to where there are few people in order to avoid detection. That means to the gaps in the fencing and the roughest terrain. Human traffickers are interested in moving bodies, not usually with what happens to people once they feel their job is done. Sometimes human traffickers on the US side of the border—sooner or later—welcome migrants into the network of criminal companies where their labor will be superexploited. Other times traffickers on the US side don’t show and traffickers from the Mexico side abandon the migrants to the elements.

Enter humanitarians who seek to help migrants in this situation. One such group, the faith-based No More Deaths, provides aid and shelter to illegal immigrants on the southwest border. Last years nine members were charged by federal authorities for various offenses. Four of the nine are currently on trial for dropping off food and water for migrants. At least this is the way their crimes have been characterized in media supportive of their actions. Tagged the Cabeza 9 (conjuring civil rights imagery), they have become a cause célèbre on the identitarian left.

It is important to consider what is involved in leaving food and water for migrants. Rationally, there must be knowledge that migrants will be at a certain place at a certain time to receive the assistance, otherwise leaving food and water in the wilderness is like expecting an exhausted, hungry, thirsty individual to find a needle in a haystack. Serious people don’t engage in haphazard action. These are big spaces full of brush. Supposing no coordination, leaving large amounts of plastic and aluminum in a protected wilderness area (those on trial were issued citations in August 2017 by a US Fish and Wildlife Service officer in a protected area west of Ajo) is ecologically irresponsible. Of course, one cannot rule out naiveté even among serious people.

It is also important to consider that the offenses are misdemeanor charges: operating a vehicle in a restricted area, not having a permit for being in the area, and abandoning personal property inside the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. In light of the fact that Cabeza Prieta is one of the deadliest corridors migrants transverse, and that expectations of American assistance risks encouraging migrants to take this route, and, moreover, that the activists are aiding and abetting criminality, the charges may seem rather minor. Moreover, if the past is any indication, they will likely be dismissed. (One of the nine, Scott Warren, is facing a separate felony charge for harboring illegal immigrants. This is a more serious charge.)

Activists protesting the charges characterize No More Deaths’ work as “humanitarian.” Their slogan: “Humanitarian aid is never a crime. Drop the charges.” Subjectively humanitarian, perhaps. I’m sure they feel like they are doing the right thing. I’m sure they feel like they’re part of the second coming of the Underground Railroad. Objectively, however, facilitating the dangerous practice of crossing the Cabeza Prieta is not humanitarian action, but action contrary to federal laws designed to protect persons, the environment, and the integrity of the Mexico-US border. Dropping the charges sends the signal that, if migrants chart a path through the wilderness to avoid detection, humanitarians will be there to assist them, thus giving migrants false hope. With the amount of media attention, a lot of potential migrants will likely hear about the work of No More Deaths. With more caravans on the way, these is a dangerous message to send.

It is revealing that the defendants in the case called upon John Fife to testify on their behalf. Fife is a Presbyterian minister of Tucson, Arizona, who, in defiance of federal law, organized over 500 churches over several decades to help migrants illegally cross the border and find sanctuary in the United States. Fife was convicted in 1986 of violating federal immigration laws and sentenced to five years’ probation. He is retired, but works closely with No More Deaths. It is not uncommon for religious leaders to believe the work their god has called upon them to perform takes priority over the rule of law of a secular nation. It is also not uncommon for them to engage in what they believe is moral action only to endanger people’s lives. Religious ambition isn’t usually governed by reason and facts. I’m sure they believe the Lord guides their actions. What would Jesus do? Probably not this.

This is not to say that I disbelieve in civil disobedience in principle. There are reasons to break the law (albeit no valid reason hails from religious doctrine except accidentally). At the same time, disobedience comes with a cost. If your actions are illegal, then criminal sanctions are the price you pay. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded his followers of this fact: while the law was an obstacle to racial justice, and individuals were therefore right to disobey segregation ordinances, for example, they were nonetheless breaking the law. Responding to civil rights activists failing to wait for the proper permitting, the Supreme Court in Walker v. Birmingham (1967) commented: “This Court cannot hold that the petitioners were constitutionally free to ignore all the procedures of the law and carry their battle to the streets. One may sympathize with the petitioners’ impatient commitment to their cause. But respect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law, which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom.” You cannot expect those who enforce the law to excuse you from any consequences because you feel strongly about what you are doing.

I also believe in the legitimacy of the US federal government—the Supreme Court spoke powerfully to this in its 1967 ruling—and therefore expect that acts of civil disobedience will be clearly justified on legitimate moral grounds. Helping people illegally enter a country that has the most generous immigration laws in the world is not a legitimate reason for violating the law. It is hard for me to feel sympathy for the situation these nine created for themselves by violating the law to these ends. Indeed, it is hard for me to shake the feeling that people who do this harbor contempt for the nation and the will of its people. At the same time, I am feel some pity for them that their religious belief have so confused them about what is in the best interests of both the country and migrants. I would like to believe that people who probably mean well are also harmless. However, either intentionally or functionally, No More Deaths play a role in perpetuating human trafficking.

When I have these conversations with pro-migration folks, I often hear the sympathy claim that all migrants want is a better life. The following things are all true: there are people who seek to come to the United States to work and send money home and then return; there are people who seek to permanently move to the United States to live and work; there are people who are fleeing violence who seek asylum in the United States. However, in all those cases there is a process. The person arrives at a port of entry and requests the US government consider their case. There is a backlog of people who have sought entry into the US in a legal fashion. More than a million people are allowed into the United States every year to live and work or go to school. So while these may be reasons to seek entry to the United States, they are not reasons to illegally enter the country. Nor are they reasons for Americans to help people illegally enter the country. The so-called Cabeza 9 are not being unjustly treated.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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