A man who says he gave food, water and shelter to migrants is facing up to 20 years in prison for “shielding” the men from US authorities.
Scott Warren, from Arizona, was arrested by border patrol agents last year along with two undocumented men who had recently crossed into the country from Mexico.
Prosecutors said the 36-year-old harboured the two men – Kristian Perez-Villanueva, of El Salvador, and Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, of Honduras – as part of an alleged conspiracy to protect them from law enforcement.
Mr Warren’s defence lawyer said his client was working “squarely and fully” within the law as part of voluntary work to halt migrant deaths in Arizona.
His trial began last week.
Border Patrol agents arrested Mr Warren in January 2018 raid near Ajo, Arizona, after finding two migrants hiding in a building used by humanitarian groups.
Mr Warren faces three felony counts for allegedly transporting, harbouring and hiding the men in a case likely to set a precedent over what aid US citizens can give to illegal border-crossers. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Mr Warren was indicted after former US attorney general Jeff Sessions instructed prosecutors to prioritise cases involving harbouring of migrants.
There has been a rise in arrests of people for harbouring, sheltering or providing aid to migrants since Donald Trump entered office in 2017, according to data from Syracuse University.
“This case is not about humanitarian aid, or anyone in medical distress,” said Nathaniel Walters, an assistant US attorney. Instead, he said, the case is about an attempt to “shield” two men for “several days” from law enforcement.
His defence lawyer, Gregory Kuykendall, told the court his client was trying to "help someone who needs medicine, or someone who needs food, or water, or orientation, especially on a cold winter night".
Mr Warren, he added, was a "law-abiding, life-giving Good Samaritan" and Ajo was at the "epicentre of a humanitarian crisis".
Mr Warren is a volunteer for No More Deaths, a group providing water, food and medical aid to migrants crossing Arizona’s southern deserts, where temperatures drop below freezing in winter and exceed 46C in summer.
More than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the area since 2001, according to Pima County data.
By taking in the migrants when they showed up at the building, Mr Warren believed he was operating within legal and medical guidelines, Mr Kuykendall said.
However, Mr Walters said the men had first contacted a mutual acquaintance of Mr Warren, identified as Irineo Mujica. Ms Mujica, a Phoenix-based migrant activist, picked them up at a nearby town and drove them to the “the barn", Mr Walters said.
Mr Kuykendall said Mr Warren was in contact with Ms Mujica to organise a search for lost or missing migrants and coordinate aid at a Mexico shelter.
Mr Warren was arrested the day No More Deaths published a video showing Border Patrol agents destroying water supplies the group had left for migrants. His lawyers argue the arrest was in retaliation for the video.
Additional reporting by Reuters
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies