While there are safe ways to enter the United States on the southern border, there are also areas of deadly desert. Crossing these areas is extremely dangerous and has resulted in the deaths of many migrants. As would be expected, some Americans have tried to aid those crossing these desolate areas by leaving water and other supplies. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson has organized No More Deaths to provide such support and, as the name states, reduce the number of deaths.
This group seems to be on solid theological footing, following the guidance of Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” However, rendering such aid has resulted in the arrest of some members. Four women from the group were sentenced for leaving water for migrants. They were not charged with providing humanitarian aid; rather they were charged with abandoning personal property and entering the area without a permit. While they got off with a fine and probation, Scott Warren was arrested and charged with a felony for harboring migrants—in this case, harboring was giving the migrants food and water. While one cannot truly know what is in the hearts of others, No More Deaths seems to be dedicated to reducing the number of deaths among migrants trying to cross the border—as opposed to having some nefarious intent to smuggle in criminals. However, their actions are illegal—they are abandoning personal property (or littering) and rendering aid to people who are engaged in illegal attempts to cross the border. But what is illegal need not be immoral, so the question remains as to whether they are acting wrongly.
One interesting approach to this matter is to look at is a case of a religious group exercising their freedom of religion. Conservatives have been very supportive of companies that do not want to accept the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act and of business owners who do not want to provide goods and services for same sex couples getting married. If it is morally acceptable to grant exceptions to laws on religious grounds to allow for discrimination, then it would be odd to deny exceptions to laws on religious grounds to allow for rendering humanitarian aid—as commanded by God. However, there seems to be little conservative support for this religious liberty and what could be seen as religious persecution—people being arrested for trying to act upon their sincerely held beliefs.
The easy and obvious reply is to contend that religious exceptions are not granted in all cases and that while allowing people to refuse service to same sex couples is a matter of religious freedom, allowing people to aid those dying in the desert is not. In any case, my main concern as a philosopher is with the ethics of the matter rather than the religious aspects.
One approach to this issue is the utilitarian approach, that the ethics of an action depends on its consequences. On the face of it, providing water in the desert to people who are at risk of dying would seem to be morally right. After all, the water can prevent suffering and death, and this seems to be obviously good. One could also use the golden rule: if I was dying in the desert, I would want someone else to render me aid. As such, it would be immoral of me to deny aid to others. Another approach is to embrace deontological ethics, that there is an obligation to aid others who are in need. All of these approaches would indicate that providing water would be the right thing to do. They can, however, be countered.
The utilitarian approach in favor of providing water can be countered by contending that providing water does more harm than good. One possible argument would involve trying to show that providing water encourages migrants to try to cross the border in dangerous areas, thus increasing their chance of suffering and dying. Another approach would be to argue that providing such aid encourages migrants to cross the border illegally, perhaps because they think Americans are generous and welcoming. The obvious counter is that migrants obviously try to cross the border even without the hope that Americans will provide water and without being tricked into thinking Americans are generous and welcoming by water bottles in the desert. As such, targeting people providing water would not deter migration; it would simply result in more suffering and death. Some claim that this is the intended consequence.
In reply to the golden rule, it could be pointed out that if I was a criminal, I would want others to aid me in my criminal endeavors—but it would not be right to do so. A reasonable counter to this is to contend that the people providing water are not aiding in committing a crime but trying to prevent deaths. To use an analogy, a doctor who patches up a wounded criminal to save their life is not aiding in a crime.
Deontology does provide a counter: one could argue that there is a duty to obey the law. The problem is, of course, that there are and have been many wicked laws. One cannot have a moral duty to do evil. But it could be argued that the laws used to prevent aid to migrants are just laws and should be obeyed, even in the face of death. After all, the migrants are breaking the law willingly—they are not compelled to enter the desert.
My own view is that providing water in the desert is morally acceptable because doing so will reduce human suffering and death. Since migrants cross the desert even without such aid, arresting people for providing humanitarian aid would not impact migration—except to the degree that doing so would increase the number of deaths. While the United States does have the right to control its borders, it does not have the right to use the desert to kill migrants trying to enter the country and it does not have the right to use such a threat to deter migration. As the bible notes, there are moral obligations binding us together across national borders.