To the editor:
CNN recently reported that a humanitarian aid worker, Scott Warren, was not guilty of harboring “illegal immigrants" along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Arizona native is a volunteer with an aid group known as No More Deaths and was accused of the serious crime of hiding two migrant workers illegally crossing the border.
His volunteerism and the work of his organization are focused on saving lives, not directly violating federal border security laws. Warren’s acquittal was based in part on the notion that humanitarian intent is legally supported.
He delivered first aid, food and water to the distressed men, and the jury agreed that he was not helping them evade authorities but rather to save their lives.
After the trial, Jeff Reinhardt, a spokesman for No More Deaths, stated, “This really affirms the rights of people crossing the border or otherwise in the desert to receive humanitarian aid and our right to give aid.”
In a similar vein, in 2018, an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that feeding homeless people in outdoor settings, including on public property, is an “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment."
The backdrop of this decision was a protracted dispute between the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a local humanitarian group called Food Not Bombs. Fort Lauderdale had ordinances requiring daily food permits and fees that were specifically intended to restrict the service of food on public property.
Food Not Bombs was originally founded in Cambridge as an association of anti-nuclear activists and later transformed into a nationwide, chapter-based organization dedicated to addressing food insecurity.
The city argued that food sharing was part of a concerted effort to intentionally defy city ordinances for public safety. But the 11th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the pacifists that food sharing was an expressive endeavor meant to care for people.
In this case, compassion superseded bureaucratic control.
Kirsten Anderson, litigation director at the Southern Legal Counsel and lead attorney on the case, asserted that “the court's opinion recognized sharing food with another human being is one of the oldest forms of human expression.”
In November 2018, Paul Tennant of The Eagle-Tribune reported on an ongoing dispute between Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera and a volunteer group who had set up shop in a city bus station to feed the homeless. The mayor, citing perfectly understandable concerns for food safety, shuttered a food service provided by volunteers, humanitarian groups and local businesses.
These three cases reveal the specter of public policy intended to make homelessness invisible, along with the plight of the homeless, and to restrict the movements of people deemed undesirable in communities. There is a prominent underlying “NIMBY” syndrome here: governments and some constituents don’t mind if homelessness persists as long as it’s “not in my backyard.”
In fact, all the cities and towns in proximity to Lawrence have far stricter ordinances and police-enforced policies than Lawrence. There is widespread intolerance for accommodating squatters, campers and even pan-handlers.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the aforementioned cases provide a remarkable insight into a set of foundational principles in our legal system where compassion trounces laws aimed at restricting people.
And so it remains a challenge for all Merrimack Valley communities to initiate serious discussion and formulate public policy that institutes shared and balanced responsibility to care for our most vulnerable residents.
Founder, Merrimack Valley Hope Mission