Arizona Volunteers Facing Jail Time For Leaving Food And Water For Migrants Illegally Crossing Into United States

Central American migrants cross the US-Mexico border fence from Tijuana to San Diego County as seen from Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on December 27, 2018. - America's border security head warned Wednesday officials were overwhelmed by the 'enormous flow' of families crossing from Mexico, appealing for federal health care funding after the second child in a month died in custody. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

Four women were convicted in federal court on Friday for charges related to leaving food and water for migrants that illegally cross into the United States.

The women — Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick — are all members of the humanitarian organization No More Death. The group is a faith-based organization that is "dedicated to stepping up efforts to stop the deaths of migrants in the desert and to achieving the enactment of a set of Faith-Based Principles for Immigration Reform," the group's website says.

Hoffman was convicted of operating a vehicle inside the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, leaving behind water jugs and cans of beans and entering the refuge without a permit. Holcomb, Huse and Orozco-McCormick were each convicted of abandoning personal property inside the refuge and entering without a permit.

The charges stem from an encounter that the women had within the Cabeza Prieta refuge with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer in August 2017. According to the Washington Post, the officer found Hoffman's truck along with the water jugs, beans and other aid items stored inside. Hours later the officer located the women who admitted to leaving food and water in the refuge.

Most of the refuge is designated as wilderness and protected by the National Wildlife Refuge System. Those who wish to enter the refuge are required to sign an agreement in order to obtain a permit. In July 2017, a paragraph was added to include that those entering the refuge will not leave behind food, water or other supplies, Arizona Republic reported.

The women testified that the added paragraph was one reason they did not seek permits as their intentions were to leave food and water behind for migrants who cross into the United States via the 50-mile border the Cabeza Prieta refuge shares with Mexico.

"No one in charge of No More Deaths ever informed them that their conduct could be prosecuted as a criminal offense nor did any of the Defendants make any independent inquiry into the legality or consequences of their activities," U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco wrote in his three-page order. "The Court can only speculate as to what the Defendants' decisions would have been had they known the actual risk of their undertaking."

Velasco also wrote that the women knowingly violated "the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature" by leaving the supplies and driving off designated roads in the Cabeza Prieta.

During the trial, prosecutors highlighted that the preferred method for migrant aid in the Cabeza Prieta is a rescue beacon. A 2017 report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection states that 34 beacons are spread across the Tucson sector of the U.S.-Mexico border "where migrants are more likely to fall victim to the environment when abandoned by unscrupulous human smugglers." The 860,000 acre Cabeza Prieta refuge contains 10 rescue beacons.

In the 2017 fiscal year, 750 migrants were rescued through the use of rescue beacons in the Tucson Sector, CBP said.

However, No More Death cites that 155 migrants have died in the refuge since 2001, Time reports.

No More Deaths volunteer Catherine Gaffney criticized the ruling in a statement from the organization, saying, "This verdict challenges not only No More Deaths volunteers, but people of conscience throughout the country. If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?"

Each of the women faces a sentence of up to six months in prison and a $500 fine.

Additional members of No More Death face similar charges and will go to trial in the next two months. However, one of those members, Scott Warren, will face an additional trial for alien smuggling.

No More Death states that the smuggling charges are retaliation for Warren posting footage of Border Patrol agents destroying supplies left for migrants.

The ruling against the four women is the first to go against humanitarian workers in the Trump administration, and the first in the United States since 2009.