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In Arizona Desert, Jewish Woman Helps Needy Mexican Immigrants

September 1, 2005
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Shanti Sellz says she never meant to be a troublemaker. A college student just back from a seven-month biological research project in Ecuador, Sellz, 23, was driving the back roads of southern Arizona on July 9 looking for Mexican migrants in distress when she and a friend stopped to help a family suffering from dehydration.

“I still remember very clearly this family: a man and a woman with two older teenagers, walking along the side of the road,” Sellz told JTA.

The migrants were ill and had severe blisters; one was vomiting. After consulting two doctors and a nurse via satellite phone, Sellz was advised to take the Mexicans to a clinic in Tucson for emergency medical treatment.

But they never made it.

U.S. Border Patrol officers stopped her car and arrested Sellz and her companion, Daniel Strauss, also 23. Their car was confiscated, and the two were charged with one felony count of transporting an undocumented person and one felony count of obstruction of justice.

Just four days later, the Border Patrol offered to drop the two federal charges if Sellz and Strauss would agree to enter a “diversion program” including admission of guilt and probation for one year. They refused the plea bargain.

“Humanitarian work needs to be applauded, not prosecuted,” Strauss told reporters at a recent press conference. “Shanti and I are not accepting this plea because we committed no crime.”

According to news reports, Border Patrol officials said the men in the truck weren’t ill and refused medical attention once in custody.

A trial is set for Oct. 4 at the federal courthouse in Tucson. In recent weeks, more than 100 activists with the local group “No More Deaths” have demonstrated in support of Sellz and Strauss and against immigration laws that make it illegal to bring undocumented migrants to a hospital or clinic, even if they’re in obvious medical danger.

“I was not expecting to be arrested,” Sellz said. “I still think, what if this was me on the side of the road? I hope to God anybody would do the same for me.”

The prospect of being holed up in a hot Arizona jail is a long way from Iowa City, where Sellz celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and was involved in the local Jewish community.

“My parents are very proud of me,” she told JTA at a remote desert camp run by No More Deaths, located off a dirt road near the town of Aravaca, south of Tucson.

The camp consists of little more than a trailer with a green tent, cots, blankets, first-aid equipment, water and food. A white flag flies from the top of a pole, making the camp visible for miles, and it’s under constant surveillance by Border Patrol agents watching from their vehicles on a nearby hill.

From here, Sellz and a dozen or so other volunteers fan out every morning during the hot summer, in pickup trucks and on foot, looking for Mexican migrants who need help.

So far this year, 229 such migrants have died in Arizona. Last year, some 200 men, women and children died in Arizona trying to make the trek north.

The reason for the sudden jump in deaths, immigration activists say, is that the U.S. government has instituted an aggressive policy that has forced migrants who might otherwise have crossed through urban areas like Nogales, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; and San Diego to cross through the dangerous deserts of the Southwest.

Since that blockade strategy began in 1995 with Operation Hold the Line, some 2,600 people have lost their lives attempting to cross the desert.

“The deaths of these migrants is a direct result of that strategy,” claimed John Fife, one of Sellz’s most outspoken supporters.

But Jose Garza, spokesman for the Border Patrol, told the Dallas Morning News that No More Deaths goes beyond humanitarian aid and may itself be putting more lives at risk.

“Smugglers are using these groups to lure illegal immigrants, saying ‘Americans put food and water out there,’ ” he said. “It gives a false sense of security.

Rob Daniels, spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson, told JTA: “It is against the law to transport illegal aliens if it is furthering their illegal entry into the United States, no different than if a smuggler were

bringing them north. It’s pretty much viewed the same by law enforcement.”

Daniels said that in the case of Sellz and Strauss, “they spoke in detail” with the Mexicans and knew they were in the United States illegally. “That is specifically why they’re set up in the desert.”

Daniels added: “The law is very clear as to what private citizens and humanitarian groups can and cannot do. We have had dialogue with these groups, which I have sat in on. They are told by Border Patrol personnel that it is not permissible for them to do what these two individuals did.”

During the 1980s, Fife — a retired Presbyterian minister and co-founder of No More Deaths — was convicted for helping Central American war refugees enter the United States illegally,

“In the face of people’s human rights being violated by government policy, the government has chosen to try to criminalize people saving lives and providing humanitarian aid,” he said. “I have every confidence this case will work to hasten immigration reform on the border.”

A day before she was arrested, Sellz had been trying to help a family find the remains of their lost daughter in the desert.

“We have Samaritan laws in Arizona that make it illegal to not stop to help someone in need,” she said, adding that No More Deaths follows an established protocol for dealing with migrants.

“If we find someone in the desert, there are steps we go through to make sure it’s a legitimate medical evacuation,” she said. “We always call a medical and legal expert.”

Bill Walker and Jeff Rogers, lawyers representing Sellz and Strauss, claim that transporting undocumented migrants who are in immediate need of medical attention does not violate federal law.

Regardless of the legal nuances, Sellz said she feels “very comfortable about the case” and wants to put the trial behind her so she can pursue a major in sustainable community development at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M.

Even though she’s not a particularly observant Jew, Sellz said, she likes the faith-based principles that drive No More Deaths.

“I know the world is unjust, but this is happening in my own backyard,” she said. “It pains me to know that these migrants are having to leave their homes, only to be met with such hatred and discrimination.”

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