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Good Samaritans Found Not Guilty!

Late in the afternoon of Friday, September 1, 2006, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins, presiding from a federal courtroom in Tucson, Arizona, dismissed all charges against Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, two volunteers with the Tucson No More Deaths Coalition, a faith- and community-based alliance.

Multifaith Voices for Peace And Justice has been following their story and advocating on their behalf for many months now. This is a major victory for decency and fairness and reminds us that our hearts must be ruled by compassion for others, not fear OF the others. Below is a story written about these two volunteers and how they faced prosecution for helping to save the lives of three dying migrants.

In an oft-quoted parable Jesus told to a certain lawyer who wanted to know how to attain eternal life, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." “But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan who had found a man who had been beaten by robbers on the road, bound up the man’s wounds, and had carried him to an inn, paying for his lodging and promising the innkeeper to pay for any additional food or medicine the wounded man might need. What could be more Christian (or Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Bahai, or simply decent....), than to follow the example that Jesus taught, and take a sick person to a hospital?

In Jesus’ parable, the good Samaritan became someone to emulate, but in the United States today, such actions could land you in jail. Consider this more modern and only slightly dramatized parable of Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, from an organization called “No More Deaths” (NMD) who spoke at the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center on Wednesday June 28th.

A certain man was going down from Mexico to Arizona; and he traveled among smugglers, who gave him some bad medicine that they thought might help him to walk faster. Instead, he fell terribly ill and could not keep up, so his companions left him alone in the desert, and went off leaving him half dead. He crawled for hours, until he collapsed on the side of a road.

And by chance a certain border patrol agent was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side, for he was looking for larger groups, one man not being enough to justify the number of scrolls the agent would have to inscribe if he helped the one bedraggled and dying traveler.

And likewise many a resident of that town also, when they came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side, for they were afraid that helping the man might delay them in their hurries or worse yet, that helping him might bring woe to them, or their families.

Finally, a good Samaritan came upon him; felt compassion and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring healing lotions on them; and took the man to a hospital, to take care of him. No harm came to the good Samaritan, and the traveler’s life was saved.

This story has been played out countless times on our nation’s borders, yet until recently, no good Samaritan had ever been arrested and prosecuted for such deeds.

On July 9th 2005, a pair of Samaritans, named Daniel and Shanti, was wandering the desert when they came upon a group of travelers. The travelers were hungry, thirsty, and suffering from severe and crippling blisters. Desperate for water, some of them had drunk from a tepid cattle tank and were very sick, unable to hold down any liquids for several days as temperatures soared past 115 degrees. Three of the travelers were so ill, that the Samaritans called two physicians and a nurse for advice. “Get them to medical care” they were told. Even a lawyer was consulted and he agreed that the Samaritans should get the three sick men to a doctor. So, the Samaritans loaded the men into their car, attached their organization insignia on the side of the car so that people would know they were transporting people in need of help, and began driving. Soon, a Border Patrol car came up behind them, followed them for a while, and eventually pulled them over. Perhaps it was the same Border Agent who had passed the other dying many by. And the agent asked them “Who are these neighbors you have in your car?” “We do not know” said the Samaritans, “but they are very ill and need medical care.”

“You speak English?” the agent asked the men in the back? When they uttered no response, the agent told the Samaritans that they were under arrest for aiding and abetting illegal immigrants.

Tossed into freezing cold and filthy cells, Daniel and Shanti shared and learned the fate of those whom our nation deems the least of these.

When they remarked on the horrible conditions to one of the officers at the jail, he replied "if you think things are bad in Guantanamo you should see how we treat them in border patrol."

For Shanti the floor of the tiny cell was littered with the bodies of over a dozen frightened and freezing women. She had to crawl over some of them to find an empty spot on the floor, where she could lie down. For Daniel, his cell had a toilet with no toilet paper, a few blankets, some of which had obviously been used in place of toilet paper, a few of which were less soiled, and a few old mattresses strewn on the floor with no bedding. Wearing only the shorts and T-shirts appropriate for the blazing heat of the desert, Daniel and Shanti, shivering and starving, awaited what indignity might come next. They spent over 18 hours in these conditions, without food or a spot of human kindness or dignity from their jailors. By morning, Daniel had acquired a cellmate. At one point the cell door swung open and the guard threw an “Egg McMuffin” at Daniel’s cellmate, hitting him in the chest. The only meals available to captives in immigration detention are leftovers donated by local fast food restaurants. One Egg McMuffin in the morning and one hamburger in the evening.

Unlike the undocumented immigrants sometimes stuck in this freezing filth for days, weeks, or months, Daniel and Shanti’s ordeal only lasted 18 hours, before they were moved to a Federal prison. Daniel described the new digs: “Clean clothes, bunk-beds with warm bedding, TV, and vending machines!” They were offered a plea bargain if they would admit to having committed a crime and would accept a year of “diversionary treatment.”

They said no. It is not a crime to help dying men get to medical care.

If convicted, they could have faced 15 years in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. However, in a wonderful ruling, all charges were finally dismissed on September 1st, 2006.

Beyond their own peril, Daniel and Shanti were always more concerned for the countless people who might die, if they were convicted and other good Samaritans had to balance the desire to save lives with the fear of going to prison.

Strauss and Sellz are just two of thousands of volunteers who patrol the Arizona desert (and other border areas across the United States). Since the passing of NAFTA, and the utter destruction of the Mexican farming industry by multinational agribusiness, the number of Mexicans trying to find work in the United States has skyrocketed. At the same time, many border areas have been militarized or walled off, forcing the migrants to take much longer and more dangerous routes to find their way to the millions of jobs on U.S. farms, in construction, or at businesses like chicken plants in North Carolina.

While in the past many Mexican (and other Central American) men would spend time working in the United States and then return to their families, the militarization of the borders and fences have made it too hard to go back and forth. So, more families – young children and women – and the very old, are now risking the hazards of the desert just to be reunited with their loved ones.

The migration isn’t easy, and many of those who try to get here die along the way. The desert is littered with the mortal remains, and the personal artifacts, of countless wanderers who never made it to their destinations. Samaritans in border states and towns, sickened by the news of migrants found dead every day, realize that the numbers of those reported dead were only a fraction of the many more never to be found.

While pundits and politicians debate economic policies, guest worker programs, and amnesty programs, people are dying, their remains disintegrating in the sand. For people of faith and good will living near these borders, the situation was simply intolerable and they had to take action.

First, water stations were set up at various spots in the desert. Then, first aid stations. Finally, groups of people started patrolling the desert, seeking out those who had collapsed and needed immediate medical aid.

Protocols were worked out with the border patrol, verbal agreements. “If we found someone who we thought needed a doctor, we called a doctor or nurse and described the person’s condition. The doctor or nurse instructed us as to whether we needed to bring the person to a hospital or clinic. If so, we transported them” Strauss explained.

These “protocols” and verbal agreements with the Border Patrol, according to No More Deaths (NMD) had been in place for years, and no one had ever been arrested before, or since, this incident. The head of the border patrol in that area for “most of this century” according to court records, was David Aguilar. More recently however, there was a new man in charge, Chief Michael Nicely. His position, again according to court records, is cut and dried. “Any transportation of an illegal alien is a crime!” That position, according to Nicely, was clearly communicated to No More Deaths, and volunteers like Daniel and Shanti and all the other NMD volunteers should have been warned by the organization’s leadership that they faced prosecution should they continue their Samaritan missions without first calling the Border Patrol to report that they were transporting an undocumented migrant.

As of right now, those missions continue, under new protocols, with lives saved every week. Rescuers now call 911 and the Border Patrol when they come upon migrants who seem to need help. If an emergency first responder can be on-site within an appropriate amount of time (this varies dependent on the case) then NMD medical folks and volunteers will stay and communicate with emergency personnel and assist as appropriate, if not, NMD will take someone to the hospital informing the government of this action.

This Summer, No More Deaths has been encountering about 6 people each week, men - women - and children, who have needed to be rushed to a hospital near the border at Sonora.

Meanwhile, the United States Congress has voted to build 700 more miles of fences around the borders. The trail will become more harsh, the number of deaths will rise, while the conditions that cause people to make the dangerous journey will continue to be ignored. That's where we can come in. Focus on the injustices forcing people to make this dangerous journey and we can stem the tide of misery and death.


No More Deaths

Democracy Now Story on Daniel and Shanti

Judge Velasco's Ruling on Motions to Dismiss

WorldWide Faith News Story

Border Action

U.S. Attorneys Office - District of Arizona

NOTE: Photos courtesy of No More Deaths.

First Image, Daniel and Shanti

Second image, NMD volunteer treating a blister

Third Image, A body on the side of the road

Forth Image, A cross, representing one who did not complete the journey

Fifth Image, Volunteer filling a water tank

Story written by Craig Wiesner
Steering Committee Member for Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice

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