Summer Quarterly 2018
Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
The chambers of the Evo A. DeConcini US District Courthouse in Tucson Arizona have borne witness to innumerable immigration-related trials—for decades. Each day’s court docket is posted prominently on a large screen near the grand entrance, just beyond the metal detectors. Most of the case names are Latino/a. Those individuals slated for a separate so-called “Streamline Court,” which criminalizes, incarcerates, and then deports hundreds of people weekly, are not listed. This federal courthouse is a deportation mill.
The past month, however, courtroom visitors to DeConcini witnessed two different types of immigration related cases. These offer a wider lens into status of law, justice and conscience in the US-Mexico borderlands.
In October 2012, US Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz fired 10 bullets through the international border fence into the back of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16 year old, who was walking down a city street in Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora. On April 23 this year, Agent Swartz was found not guilty of 2nd degree murder.
Weeks later, Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid volunteer from Ajo, Arizona was in the same federal courthouse facing two counts of “harboring” and one of conspiracy to transport/harbor, all felonies, for providing food, water and clothing to two men who turned up in Ajo weary, hungry and cold after walking several days and nights in the desert. Mr. Warren is looking at 20 years in prison. His guests were deported.
One courthouse, two faces of justice. Murder gets a pass and compassion goes on trial. The juxtaposition of these cases lays bare the dissonance of law in the borderlands.
I attended one of Mr. Warren’s recent pre-trail hearings where he and his attorneys argued for dismissal of all charges based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The act says the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
Mr. Warren testified for nearly two hours, articulating his spiritual belief in the inherent worth of every human being and his responsibility to provide life-saving care to anyone in need. He also spoke of having recovered the bodies of 16 people who had died of dehydration/exposure over his six years of walking desert trails. He testified, “My duty of conscience drives me to show up, to be present to the suffering. Living and dead.”
Mr. Warren’s testimony included reflections on the “soul of the desert.” He holds sacred the Sonoran Desert even as it is being turned into a vast graveyard. And too he recognizes an inherent sacredness in the personal items people leave behind, or die with … hand sown tortilla cloths, rosaries, photographs, blankets, silverware, dolls…
Mr. Warren’s attorneys argued that under RFRA “…his conduct cannot legally constitute a crime because the government cannot prosecute any individual for exercising his/her sincerely held religious beliefs….” Even US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said, “[I]n the United States, the free exercise of religion is not a mere policy preference to be traded against other policy preferences.”
The cross-examination by the federal prosecutors exposed a wide, familiar crevasse in ideology: conscience vs. the law. After Mr. Warren’s moving spiritual testimony, the barrage of vapid “yes” or “no” questions from prosecutors rattled off the courtroom walls like ball bearings in a tin pan. Unable to refute Mr. Warren’s soul sharing, the prosecutors took aim with a “Why didn’t you just call 911?” form of rebuttal. Justice was reduced to the level of television game show banality.
Trials, for me, are a litmus test of the health or illness of society. This particular courthouse is rife with examples of the later.
Scott Warren’s testimony is a cry in the wilderness, a breath of fresh air in the belly of the proverbial beast. As his testimony echoed off the chamber walls I couldn’t help but ponder what else these walls have absorbed, sounds that a court recorder will never write, nor a transcript ever reveal: The chain gang shuffle of shackled men and women marched in and out of Streamline Court. The deafening silence when the jury foreperson announced that Agent Lonnie Swartz was “not guilty” of the murder of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez—not to mention the gasps and sobs that followed.
Walls hold stories in stone. What happens in court echoes off these walls, and across the country and the hemisphere. These are the unseen border walls. Here the fist of US immigration policy is hidden in a silk glove. What can bring down these walls and the ideologies that prop them up? When will the weight of injustice be too much for them to bear?
There is plenty more in store for the Evo. A. DeConcini Courthouse this year. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco will rule on Scott Warren’s motion for dismissal in late June. Meanwhile, eight humanitarian aid workers, including Mr. Warren, await prosecution for the crime of placing water, food, and other life-saving supplies on public lands where high numbers of human remains have been recovered. What will the vaunted walls of DeConcini hear next?
—A long-time peace activist, John Heid works with the group No More Deaths in Ajo, Arizona