A colleague was awarded an honorary doctorate from a distinguished university.
Asked how he felt after the ceremony, he said: “An honorary doctorate is kind of like a tail on a pig. No one knows what earthly good it does, but it sure does tickle the pig from time to time.”
Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss have every reason to be tickled pink. With the No More Deaths movement, they have been awarded one of the most prestigious human rights honors, named after martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero.
At the ceremony in Houston last week, it was noted that Shanti and Daniel were the first Americans to receive the Oscar Romero Award from Rothko Chapel.
Other recipients have been Paulo Cardinal Arns of Brazil; a newspaper editor in Sarajevo, Bosnia; and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Distinguished company, indeed!
But just a short time ago, Shanti and Daniel were facing serious federal felony charges with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
July 9, 2005, No More Deaths volunteers had encountered a group of nine migrants in the desert. The migrants had been out of water for two days in 110-degree heat.
Six of them were given food and water and chose to continue walking. Three, however, were critically ill with all the symptoms of severe heat exhaustion.
Hyperthermia, they call it, and it means spiking fever, nausea, vomiting and fainting. One of them had bloody diarrhea.
After a phone consultation with a physician, it was determined that the three migrants were clearly in life-threatening condition and should be medically evacuated to a clinic.
It should be noted that the previous week was the deadliest on record: 78 migrant bodies had been found in the Sonoran Desert. Only God knows how many were never found.
As Shanti and Daniel drove toward the clinic in Tucson in a clearly marked humanitarian aid vehicle, with the three migrants not concealed in any manner, they were stopped by a Border Patrol agent and arrested.
Charged with transporting illegal aliens and conspiracy, they spent 48 hours in jail until their release.
After more than a year of pretrial hearings and motions, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins ordered the charges dismissed last September.
The government earlier had offered to lower the charges to misdemeanors in exchange for guilty pleas.
Shanti and Daniel refused the offer because to accept it would be to acknowledge that their lifesaving mission in the desert was somehow a crime. Humanitarian aid is never a crime!
So Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss and the No More Deaths movement were presented the Oscar Romero Human Rights Award last week.
But far more than tickling two very courageous young people, this moment should awaken all of us to the terrible violations of basic human rights that are occurring throughout the borderlands.
The death and suffering of so many thousands of desperately poor men, women and children as the direct result of a tragically failed border policy is now recognized as a crime against humanity.
Michael Higgins, at a previous award presentation, spoke to us all.
“Oscar Romero has become a symbol of the gaze not averted, the heart not stifled, the voice not silenced in the midst of oppression, death, militarism, and intimidation of many kinds. He is a symbol of . . . a fundamental truth, that having come to the knowledge of the sources of great wrong, truth requires a set of responses that will require pain but which suggests a moral journey that is inescapable.”
John Fife is a retired Presbyterian pastor who volunteers with Samaritans, No More Deaths, Borderlinks and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. My Tucson: Read more by our My Tucson columnists.