Story at a glance
- Judge Rosemary Márquez overturned a prison sentence given to four volunteers who entered the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Group to give water to migrants.
- The federally protected land is often crossed by migrants, who face dangerous dry and hot conditions.
- The four defendants were working with their church and therefore protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A federal judge this week overturned the convictions of four aid volunteers who had left jugs of water and food for migrants crossing the border to enter the U.S., CNN reported.
The volunteers with the religious nonprofit No More Deaths ministry had been convicted by Federal Magistrate Bernardo Velascoin January 2019 of entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit and abandonment of property.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez ruled that the four volunteers — Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco — were acting on "sincere religious beliefs" as part of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson when they snuck into the wildlife refuge in 2017.
A #nomoredeaths volunteer on work in the #cabezaprieta wilderness: “It’s one of the deadliest corridors in the area. If we didn’t actively intervene...it would undermine our entire mission and it would be really insincere to our core values and beliefs.”https://t.co/hUQb9siHbI— No More Deaths (@NoMoreDeaths) February 5, 2020
The defendants are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, who “met their burden of establishing that their activities were exercises of their sincere religious beliefs, and the government failed to demonstrate that application of the regulations against defendants is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling interest,” according to the ruling.
The court then reversed the previous guilty verdicts.
“The reversal of the convictions is a victory for all people of conscience and righteousness who seek to end the death and suffering in the borderlands," volunteer Alicia Dinsmore said in a statement.
The wildlife refuge where the four defendants entered is the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness in the Sonoran Desert. The area is frequented by migrants crossing into the U.S., although the hot and dry conditions have caused many migrants to die from dehydration.
No More Deaths reports that 32 individual sets of human remains were found in 2017, giving it the moniker “the trail of death.”