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06456 September 6, 2006
Church-backed border workers cleared of immigrant-smuggling charges
Judge says 'No More Deaths' pair followed long-accepted 'protocol'
by Evan Silverstein
LOUISVILLE - A federal judge in Tucson, AZ, has dismissed immigrant-smuggling charges against two volunteers from a faith-based humanitarian aid group that receives support from Presbyterians.
Shanti A. Sellz and Daniel M. Strauss, both 24 years old, were facing possible prison time in their high-profile felony case that was scheduled to go to trial early next month.
However, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins tossed out the case Sept. 1, ruling that the government for years has led volunteers to believe they could legally provide care to ailing illegal immigrants, according to media reports.
The two desert-aid workers, who are not Presbyterians, were volunteering with the Tucson-based No More Deaths movement. The faith-based group provides food, water and basic medical care to illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico into the United States through Arizona's treacherous desert borderlands.
Presbyterian leaders in Arizona were instrumental in helping form the humanitarian organization, which is led and supported by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members and congregations, among them St. Mark's Presbyterian Church and Southside Presbyterian Church, both in Tucson.
Founding members of the organization include the Rev. John Fife, a retired Presbyterian minister and longtime border activist, and Rick Ufford-Chase, a former PC(USA) General Assembly moderator who for years worked along the Arizona-Mexico border as a mission co-worker for the denomination. Ufford-Chase co-founded Borderlinks, an educational and advocacy organization along the border, almost 20 years ago
"It's a vindication of our basic principle that humanitarian aid is not a crime," Fife told the Presbyterian News Service. "And it really is a step toward the reestablishment of basic human rights in borderlands."
Sellz and Strauss were arrested July 9, 2005, by the U.S. Border Patrol while transporting three illegal entrants from the Arivaca, AZ, border area to Tucson for medical treatment.
The two were indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiracy to transport and transportation of an illegal alien.
Sellz and Strauss said they were following a "protocol" they'd been taught by No More Deaths, checking with a lawyer and a doctor by telephone before they began driving the illegal border crossers, whom they said were severely dehydrated and sick.
The pair, who were taking the entrants to a medical clinic at Southside church, did not contact 911 or the Border Patrol since that was not called for by the protocol.
Collins dismissed the case after ruling that Sellz and Strauss were following guidelines that border volunteers had been using for several years without being arrested, media reports said.
Collins found that Sellz and Strauss could not be prosecuted for what had been deemed legal and that the two had made reasonable efforts to ensure that their actions were not in violation of the law.
Collins ruled the two had been told by No More Deaths officials that they could transport sick illegal entrants under certain conditions, local media reported.
"They were assured that the 'protocol' had been approved by Border Patrol and that the transportation for these medical purposes was not a violation of the law," Collins wrote, according to reports.
The judge's ruling doesn't address whether the guidelines No More Deaths was using at the time broke the law, the reports pointed out.
In a court filing, federal prosecutors asked the judge not to dismiss the charges against Sellz and Strauss, saying that No More Deaths representatives had been told in April 2005 by Border Patrol officials that "enforcement action would be taken if a volunteer were to transport illegal aliens."
Border Patrol officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday (Sept. 5).
The Rev. John C. Matthew, a retired Presbyterian minister and a No More Deaths volunteer, said he was elated with Collins' ruling to dismiss the charges.
"I'm just as happy as could be about it," he said of the dismissal. "I really feel the judge made the right decision. Being personally involved with these young people and knowing them you just don't want to see anything bad happen. What a waste of wonderful young lives it would be to prosecute them."
Matthew said No More Deaths changed its guidelines for volunteers after the arrests and no longer provides transportation for illegal migrants.
Attorney Bill Walker of Tucson, who represented Sellz, said his client was not the only winner in last week's ruling.
"This is a wonderful result for humanitarian work in general, and should be seen as a victory for everyone," said Walker, who joined Stanley Feldman, a former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, to defend Sellz free of charge. "The judge made it clear that the real winners are the migrants, who both the Border Patrol and No More Deathsare working to rescue."
Past attempts by defense attorneys to have the charges dismissed failed after the desert-aid workers rejected a government-offered plea agreement shortly after being arrested.
Most recently U.S. Magistrate Bernardo P. Velasco declined to dismiss the case, but Collins overruled him Sept. 1.
"We didn't think it should ever be illegal to save a human life," Strauss, a New York City native, told the Presbyterian News Service on July 27, 2005. "I think it's outrageous that they are prosecuting a case like this."
Sellz, who is originally from Iowa City, IA, said at the time: "We cannot stand by and watch others perish, and we can find no guilt in saving another life."
In response to the arrests of Sellz and Strauss, No More Deaths launched a campaign it called "Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime."
Signs featuring that slogan popped up around southern Arizona as the humanitarian group hosted press conferences where community leaders and groups voiced their collective support for Sellz and Strauss.
More than 30,000 petitions were sent to U.S. prosecutor Paul Charlton, asking him to drop the charges. More than 2,000 individuals and organizations endorsed the campaign, including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 261-mile-long stretch of border in the Tucson sector is the nation's main corridor for illegal immigrants entering the United States. A sharp spike in deaths there in recent years has raised the concern of the PC(USA) and others. In 2003, the denomination's 215th General Assembly approved an overture calling for measures to prevent migrant-worker deaths in the borderlands.
The measure, submitted by the Presbytery de Cristo, which represents 30 Presbyterian churches in southern Arizona and western New Mexico, calls on Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to be in relationship with congregations and middle governing bodies in border areas to help migrants in life-threatening situations.
In April 2005, the PC(USA) and the Synod of the Southwest sponsored a three-day conference on the crisis titled "Death & Life on the Border." PDA provided $15,000 to the Synod of the Southwest to help finance the conference, and the synod kicked in $12,000.
PDA also has contributed $20,000 to the Presbytery de Cristo to support a number of border projects, including No More Deaths. Money for the grants came from designated disaster funds and from the One Great Hour of Sharing offering.
Despite the prosecution of Sellz and Strauss, hundreds of volunteers once again traveled to the Arizona borderlands this summer to volunteer with No More Deaths, which in addition to faith communities, includes human rights advocates and grassroots organizers working to reduce the number of migrant deaths along the Arizona border.
The group maintains "Ark of the Covenant" desert camps and supports "Samaritan patrols" in which volunteers roam the desert in jeeps and vans, looking for stranded migrants, offering them food, water and medical help.
No More Deaths also recently launched dual projects in Agua Prietaand Nogales, Mexico, where volunteers provide humanitarian assistance to unsuccessful border crossers as they are retuned to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol.
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