Government led students Sellz, Strauss to believe helping them was acceptable, judge rules
In a dramatic ruling Friday, the year-long case against humanitarians Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss was dismissed.
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins found that the government for years has led No More Deaths volunteers to believe they could legally provide care to ailing illegal immigrants.
Sellz and Strauss could not be prosecuted for what had been deemed legal, Collins found.
The college students were in the desert near Arivaca on July 9, 2005, when they encountered five illegal immigrants.
Two of the men showed signs of severe dehydration, so Sellz and Strauss called physicians in Tucson and were advised to rush the men to a hospital.
Before they could reach Tucson, Border Patrol agents arrested them and apprehended the two men.
Sellz and Strauss willingly faced an uncertain future, refusing from the outset to accept a plea agreement.
“We have committed no crime,” Strauss said on July 21, 2005.
On Friday, Collins agreed.
“The judge recognized that Samaritans (a group that is part of No More Deaths) really is a humanitarian organization,” said Bill Walker, who joined Stanley Feldman, a former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, to defend Sellz free of charge.
“What the judge said is, No More Deaths isn’t an organization smuggling immigrants.
“That’s a great victory for everybody in Tucson and on the border who wants to make sure people don’t die in the desert.”
The Rev. John Fife, founder of Samaritans, rejoiced. “This is vindication for our position from the very beginning. And that is, humanitarian aid is never a crime,” he said.
Signs spouting that slogan had sprung up around the Tucson area as supporters of the humanitarian movement feared for Sellz and Strauss.
U.S. Magistrate Bernardo P. Velasco recently declined to dismiss the case, but Collins overruled him.
Fife said the ruling sends a clear, ethical message to the people of southern Arizona that food, water and emergency medical care can be provided to anyone in distress.
“In my judgment, that means lives will be saved,” said Fife.
The Green Valley Samaritans had held a memorial service Thursday for a migrant they had found dead in the desert.
Alfonso Salas Villagran had died from a combination of heart disease and heat exposure, the Pima County medical examiner found.
“I was at the No More Deaths camp when the folks from Green Valley found the body,” Fife said.
“We hear all kinds of ways people try to dehumanize these folks, calling them ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals.’ This death puts a human face on this issue.”
Sellz, Strauss and federal prosecutors could not be reached for comment.