When Humanitarianism at the Border is Considered a Crime

Photo by Jasper Nance who noted, “We found these in the desert strewn about with handles made from cloth and rope. After seeing the sign about illegal immigration in the area we wondered if these had been set out here for immigrants or brought from across the border by them. Either way, they were empty.

Guiding Questions

  • How do borders impact people’s lives?
    • What is the purpose of borders?
    • How do the visible and invisible borders that people encounter shape their lives?
    • How can borders work in an ethical way?

Learning Goals:

  • Promote an understanding of the impact of border enforcement on migration to the U.S.
  • Explore the impact of policy on the lives of im/migrants and non-immigrants
  • Promote reflection on the ethics of border policy

Should providing humanitarian aid to im/migrants without papers crossing the border be a crime? Writing in the New Yorker, Murat Oztaskin explains:

Arizona’s stretch of the U.S. southern border is the deadliest in the country. Over the past two decades, the area has claimed the lives of almost three thousand migrants trying to cross into the United States—accounting for nearly forty per cent of the deaths recorded by border authorities in that time. (Human-rights groups, which, along with the media, have produced higher tallies, note that the death toll is likely greater than official reports indicate.) The Border Patrol’s Prevention Through Deterrence policies, introduced by the Clinton Administration in 1994, have steadily pushed migrants crossing the southern border into more remote and dangerous terrain. The strategy closed off the border’s urban ports of entry, moving crossing traffic into the rugged Sonoran wilderness, where temperatures can reach a hundred and twenty degrees in the summer and fall below freezing in the winter, and where potable water is scarce. As No More Deaths has noted in a series of reports that it is co-authoring about how immigration enforcement is fuelling a crisis of missing migrants, some of the “indicators of success” listed in a 1994 Border Patrol strategy document included “fee increases by smugglers” and “more violence at attempted entries.” “If functioning as intended,” the report states, “Prevention Through Deterrence would reshape migration to become more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught.” Border Patrol figured that pushing crossings into the backcountry would dissuade migrants from attempting to enter the U.S., but it has only increased the risk of death and serious injury. It’s also given rise to a corps of volunteers offering humanitarian aid to those crossing in the desert…

This 16-minute film by Ora DeKornfeld and Isabel Castro introduces the story of Scott Walker, who was arrested by agents of the U.S. Border Patrol for providing humanitarian assistance to José Sacaria-Goday and Kristian Perez-Villanueva, undocumented immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador. According to Oztaskin, “Warren was charged with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens and two counts of harboring, and faced up to twenty years in prison.”

Reflection Questions and Teaching Suggestions

As you watch the film, note what you:

  • See
  • Feel
  • Think
  • Wonder

Find an appropriate way for students to share what they saw, felt, thought, and wondered as they watched.

From the particular story that the film tells, pull back the focus to a discuss the role of borders using the guiding questions we shared at the beginning of the post:

  • How do borders impact people’s lives?
    • What is the purpose of borders?
    • How do the visible and invisible borders that people encounter shape their lives?
    • How can borders work in an ethical way?

Consider whose voices are in this film and whose voices are not included. By whom, about who, and for whom can help to frame that discussion.

  • By whom?
    • Who do you think/know created this work where and when and what does this make you think about?
  • About Whom?
    • Who is depicted in this work and how and what does this make you think about?
  • For Whom?
    • Who might be the audience for this work and what does this make you think about?
  • Who Else?
    • Whose voices may be missing and what does this make you think about?

It can be helpful to wrap up the exploration by considering the significance of the story. Ask yourself:

  • Why does this story matter to me?
  • What does it matter to my community?
  • Why does it matter to the world?

Step outside of your own perspective and try to imagine what other perspectives might shape the way people answer those questions.