Iowa woman charged for helping sick illegals

Monday, September 12, 2005

With a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter whirring above, Margo Cowan stood in a campsite waving the chopper toward a mother and child lost miles back in the thick cactus and dangerous desert terrain.

Moments before, she had called the patrol to alert it that members of her group had come across migrants rushing north who told them about the wandering pair.

It was a perfect moment for Cowan's organization, No More Deaths.

Troubled by the rise in migrants' deaths in the vast Sonoran Desert, religious and humanitarian groups created the organization nearly two years ago and have tried since to make a difference.

For Shanti Sellz, a 23-year-old from Iowa City, the effort has come with a price. She is one of two volunteers to be recently arrested and charged.

"I'm not scared. Those were people who were extremely ill," she said, referring to the migrants whom she and the other volunteer, Daniel Strauss of New York, were taking to a church-run medical clinic in Tucson when arrested by Border Patrol agents on recently.

The volunteers' efforts have ranged from putting water at desert spots marked by a bright blue flag with the Northern star and a drinking gourd to getting medical help for seriously ill migrants.

Though largely an Arizona movement, No More Deaths has attracted support and volunteers from across the United States, including visits from people who just want to see the border situation for themselves.

Not everyone has welcomed the work of the coalition, which has borrowed a page from, as well as leaned on, some Tucson-based veterans from the 1980s sanctuary movement when religious and other groups offered haven in the United States to Central Americans fleeing wars.

In addition to the backlash from people unhappy with migrants passing through their communities or who consider the help to be misguided, the federal government is pressing charges against the Iowa woman and the other man, saying they could face up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

"There's a lot resting on this," said William Walker, an attorney for the two volunteers.

"The humanity of our country is at stake if it is truly against the law to transport someone for emergency medical purpose. What's happened to 'Give me your tired and your poor?'" said Walker, who describes the charges as unprecedented.

The U.S. Southwestern border this fiscal year has seen the highest number of migrant deaths than in any other year since government record-keeping began in 1998, according to the Border Patrol.

The governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared states of emergency to deal with the crisis in drug trafficking and illegal migration.

Since its efforts began, members of No More Deaths have been taking seriously ill migrants found in the desert to hospitals or a medical clinic in a Tucson church, Walker said. There has been no intention to break the law, and the Border Patrol has known what is going on, he said.

"Now, all of a sudden there is a change in (the Border Patrol) attitude," he said.

Border Patrol spokesman Gustavo Soto disagrees.

"If they've been doing this, they've been getting away with it," said the official based in Tucson.

Soto also questioned the coalition's placement of food and water in the desert.

"Smugglers are telling the illegal aliens, 'Don't worry about crossing because there are people out there who will help you guys,'" he said.

Such supplies also give migrants "the false hope" that they can survive the desert, he added.

In Arivaca, Ariz., a rural community several miles north of the Mexico border, resentment toward the coalition and migrants was palpable at a recent meeting called by the Border Patrol. The town and surrounding area are often crisscrossed by the smugglers and migrants, with Border Patrol agents chasing them in the air and on the ground.

"This humanitarian thing, it was a good idea, but it seems to be going swiftly wrong," Scott Bumagin said at the meeting.

Another resident suggested the patrol use sharpshooters to kill the smugglers and then hang their bodies on poles to scare off the migrants.

But neighbors' griping has not dampened the enthusiasm of Cowan, a veteran of the sanctuary movement. She had taken a week off from her job as a Pima County public defender to oversee the camp being set up in the desert by No More Deaths.

On hand were a few college students from across the nation and a middle-age man sent by his church in Orlando, Fla. The camp is called the Ark of the Covenant in the tradition of the box containing the sacred scrolls that Jews carried when wandering in the desert in biblical times.

"What we do is right. We cannot stand by and see people die by the side of the road," said Cowan. She has held those sick and dehydrated in the desert. "(One young man kept saying, 'Call my sister and tell her when I die' and I kept saying, 'You will not die,'" she recalled.

The work is not against the law, the volunteers insist.

Driving one truck was Gary Wolfe, 63, a retired businessman.

"I'm not crazy about migrants using tax money," he said, "but I'm not about to let anyone die."

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