When I accompany asylum-seekers to the US border, I know things can go wrong. It was my fourth time doing it when I approached the Lukeville Port of Entry in Arizona with Reneé last month. None of the previous times had gone smoothly.
But what I did not expect was to get arrested. I’d talked to lawyers up and down the border for months about risks, and getting locked up was never on the menu. Even as our constitutional rights are stripped away in service of the president’s anti-immigrant fearmongering, no one had ever been arrested for accompanying an asylum-seeker before. So, no, I did not expect to be declared a smuggler, stripped of my belt and shoes, and thrown in a concrete cell to be held “as long as we want to hold you” that day.
The first time I accompanied someone to the border, the young man was turned away under the (false) excuse that asylum-seekers can’t apply there because the port closes at midnight. I saw a family of 16 beaten to the ground, children ripped out of parents’ arms, Tasers pointed at fathers’ chests. The last time I’d come as an observer, a 22-year-old mother had been separated from her 6-year-old child, her only surviving family member after the massacre she’d just fled.
Reneé (not his real name) knew all of these stories. He knew that he would be held in a private detention center for the entirety of his proceedings. He knew that in Arizona detention centers, there was a 96% chance he’d lose his case and be sent back to where he had fled. But Reneé had also been kidnapped and extorted in Mexico. He had to present his asylum claim. He’d tried a few days before and been turned away, so he wanted someone there to observe.
We got to the border around 3 p.m. I hung back watching to see if they’d let Reneé in, and when they didn’t, I walked up to ask what was wrong. Officer Noriega apologized — “We’re processing another family,” she said — and asked that we return in a couple of hours.
At 5 on the dot, we were back. As soon as we showed up, a new Customs and Border Protection officer came barreling out of his office toward us. “How many?” he yelled in our direction. A guard held up one finger. “OK!” Supervisor Williams said. “One asylum-seeker, and an illegal alien smuggler.”
He kept repeating “illegal alien smuggler” as he walked Reneé and me to the office. In a fury he told me, “You know, I could arrest you for this,” and then, “I’m going to arrest you for this.” Finally I asked him if I was under arrest. “Yes,” he replied. I handed him a letter from the ACLU and told him to call my lawyer. The supervisor threw it onto the desk and told me to tell my lawyer to come down to the port and they’d arrest him, too.
Had we been in any other period in recent American history, I wouldn’t have been so worried. Not only had I not broken the law, but Reneé and I had gone above and beyond to ensure that things would go smoothly. His lawyer had even called in advance to alert the port we were coming. (In hindsight, I wonder if this helped to encourage my arrest.) But on that day, I did have cause for concern: My neighbor, friend, and fellow humanitarian volunteer Scott Warren is currently on trial, accused of breaking the same statute that I allegedly had. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
This latest breed of madness began in April 2017, when then–attorney general Jeff Sessions took his first trip to the border. Though federal prosecution against immigrants for unlawful entry and reentry was already at an all-time high, Sessions was determined to go further. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” he said. He swore to be even more aggressive, calling for felony charges to be brought against reentering undocumented immigrants under certain circumstances, and for billions in funding to go toward Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts to find people without papers in the interior. He also vowed to seek out those who supported undocumented immigration.
In a memo released that day, Sessions prioritized prosecuting smuggling, harboring, and transporting under Statute 1324. This is the statute the supervisor told me I was being held for violating, and the statute that Warren is being charged with — for giving “food, water, clean clothes, and beds” to two lost and hungry Central American travelers.
Sessions is gone, but his legacy lives on: Since his speech in Nogales, Arizona, such prosecutions under this statute have risen over 30%.
At the time of writing, I am yet to be charged. My arrest seemed to be pure intimidation, an attempt at chilling what is already a next-to-impossible process: seeking asylum. Nevertheless, it is a symbolic escalation by those in power who are committed to the criminalization of immigration.
I was born into US citizenship thanks to my grandparents, who sought asylum in America from Nazi Germany. Warren is also an American citizen. If he loses his case, those who live in this country without legal documentation will be at even greater risk. The precedent that could be set by a guilty verdict is very concerning.
“Take, for instance, a family in which one member is undocumented and another member, who is a citizen, is buying the groceries and paying the rent,” Warren recently wrote. “Would the government call that harboring?”
But the most worrying thing about the crackdown on those supporting immigrants — be they aid workers, lawyers and journalists, or a good Samaritan offering help to a dying teen on the side of the road — is the government's attempt to criminalize beautiful acts of humanity. Consider my friend and his father, who left water at a shrine on their Tohono O’odham reservation and were circled by a helicopter and told to go back and pick it up or else be charged with aiding and abetting. Or my eightysomething neighbor, who gave men staggering out of the desert her husband’s Vienna sausages from Costco when they asked for food. She later spoke up at a community meeting about her fear of repercussions.
In the nine months I have spent volunteering at the migrant shelter in Northern Mexico where I met Reneé — and living alongside Scott Warren in Ajo, Arizona — I have witnessed a greater level of suffering and despair than I could ever have imagined. But I have also seen a level of care and kindness that may be possible only when you call the most deadly stretch of the border your home.
Where there is need, there are those who will help. I am deeply concerned that in our government’s fury to deport our neighbors and keep the most recent wave of immigrants out, it is also trying to divide us from the compassion that binds us as humans.
“Whatever happens with my trial,” Warren wrote, “the next day, someone will walk in from the desert and knock on someone’s door, and the person who answers will respond to the needs of that traveler. If they are thirsty, we will offer them water; we will not ask for documents beforehand. The government should not make that a crime.”
Ana Adlerstein is an independent journalist and a master's student within the Network on Humanitarian Action.