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Religious freedom concerns raised as trial over aid to illegal immigrants ends in hung jury

A federal jury in Arizona failed to convict a Christian volunteer who faced the possibility of 20 years in prison after providing humanitarian aid to unauthorized immigrants.

U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins issued a mistrial Tuesday after a hung 12-person jury could not decide whether to convict 36-year-old aid volunteer Scott Warren on three charges.

Warren was charged in January 2018 with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants (punishable by up to 10 years in prison) and two counts of harboring illegal immigrants.

According to No More Deaths, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tuscon that Warren served with, the jury was split with eight in favor of acquitting the defendant and four against such a move. The jury was dismissed by Collins after they indicated that more time in deliberation would not help.

Collins scheduled a conference on July 2 to hear whether the prosecution will proceed with a retrial in Warren’s case.

“Scott Warren remains innocent, both as a legal and as a factual matter, because the jury could not unanimously conclude otherwise,” Warren’s lawyer Greg Kuykendall said in a statement. “The government put on its best case and 12 jurors could not agree with that case. We remain fully devoted in our commitment to defend Scott’s lifelong devotion to providing humanitarian aid.”

Prosecutors argued during the trial that the two migrants that Warren was charged with helping were in good health and were not in need of medical care when they showed up to a migrant aid location known as “The Barn” located in the town of Ajo about 30 miles from the border.

According to, prosecutor Anna Wright claimed that humanitarian aid was a “cover story.” She also contended that Warren was “the hub” of a human-smuggling ring that also involved a man who ran a migrant shelter just across the border in Sonoyta, Mexico.

Warren was accused of conspiring to help Kristian Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and Jose Sacaria-Goday of Honduras cross the border illegally and help them get to Phoenix.

The prosecution also claims that Warren’s goal was to “thwart the Border Patrol at every possible turn” in order to help illegal border crossings.

Agents reportedly testified that they saw Warren giving directions to the immigrant men. But Warren explained in court that he was simply telling the men how to get to a highway if they got injured or lost.

Warren also testified that he did not know that the two migrant men would be at the Barn when he arrived. Warren maintains that he followed the protocols put in place by No More Deaths to provide medical assessment, shelter and humanitarian needs.

Over 137,000 people have put their support behind an online petition calling for federal prosecutors to drop the charges against Warren.

Law professors who specialize in religious freedom law — led by Columbia University’s Katherine Franke — filed an amicus brief in support of Warren explaining why the court should have considered Warren’s motion to dismiss the case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“This case represents one of the first instances in which a court has had to adjudicate the application of RFRA as a defense to a criminal prosecution under federal immigration law, specifically which prohibits harboring and is a criminal law of general application,” the brief notes.

“Given that the issues involved — the enforcement of federal immigration law and the fundamental right to religious liberty — are significant, and that the case presents a question of first impression, it is imperative that the court structure its ruling on the RFRA motion to dismiss in a way that will provide clear guidance to the parties here and to other parties and courts in the future.”

The brief argues that since a wide range of religious institutions run homeless shelters, soup kitchens and other charitable services that provide basic needs to people who may be undocumented, “it is particularly important that this court provide clear guidance on this matter.”

“Properly understood, a key element of Dr. Warren’s sincerely held religious beliefs included a commitment to help others in distress to the point of being a duty or compulsion to provide them aid even though there was a risk of violating federal law,” the brief points out. “This is precisely the kind of ‘Catch-22 situation’ that RFRA’s notion of substantial burden was intended to capture.”

However, Collins rejected motions from Kukendall to dismiss the charges. The Washington Post reports that Kuykendall failed to convince the court that the prosecution would violate Warren’s religious freedom rights by blocking him from adhering to Christian principles that compel him to “provide emergency aid to fellow human beings in need.”

The New York Times reports that volunteers have trekked through the Arizona desert for over 15 years to place water jugs, food and other humanitarian supplies in spots where migrants can come to receive the aid.

But in April 2017, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo encouraging federal prosecutors to consider prosecuting “any case involving the unlawful transportation or harboring of aliens.”

In a statement following the trial, Warren criticized the Trump administration over policies that “target undocumented people, refugees, and their families.” Warren also claimed that since his arrest in January 2018, there have been at least 88 bodies recovered in the Arizona desert.

“Today it remains as necessary as ever for local residents and humanitarian aid volunteers to stand in solidarity with migrants and refugees,” Warren said. “And we must also stand for our families, friends, and neighbors — and the very land itself — most threatened by the militarization of our borderland communities.”

In addition to Warren, other No More Death volunteers have faced punishment for their actions in providing aid to migrants.

As the Arizona Republic reports, a federal judge convicted four volunteers in January of the misdemeanor crime of entering a wildlife refuge without a permit in order to drop off food and water for immigrants. The volunteers were given 15 months of probation and ordered to pay $150 fines.

In February, four more No More Deaths volunteers pled guilty and agreed to pay $280 in fines for entering a wildlife refuge to help refugees.

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