Vast majority of Americans oppose criminalizing humanitarian aid along Mexican border

President Donald Trump and immigration officials have attempted to criminalize the providing of humanitarian aid to undocumented immigrants at the U.S.–Mexico border; those who are caught have faced the threat of arrest by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence.

A UCLA policy brief published today reveals that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose the policy.

The brief cites a survey of 1,505 Americans that was conducted in 2019. Participants were asked, “Do you agree or disagree that it should be a crime for people to offer humanitarian aid, such as water or first aid, to undocumented immigrants crossing the desert along the U.S.–Mexico border?” Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed said they disagreed — including 71% of Republicans — highlighting the unpopularity of the policy.

“People who make the treacherous trek across the border face multiple threats in inclement weather conditions and without proper nutrition or water,” said Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. “The idea that someone could go to jail for helping another person facing life-threatening needs is unfathomable and, as the study shows, against American values.”

The brief draws statistics from a survey of American’s views on immigration policy in the Trump era that was led by Chris Zepeda-Millan a UCLA associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and public policy, and Sophia Wallace, a professor at the University of Washington. The research was fielded by the polling firm Prolific.

For years, volunteer groups and organizations that work along the border have provided first aid and free water and food for migrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border. According to Border Patrol estimates cited in the brief, more than 7,500 people died crossing the border between 1998 and 2018. In 2018, an activist named Scott Warren was arrested in Arizona on charges of harboring undocumented immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador. Warren was acquitted in November 2019.

“Humanitarian relief volunteers are responding to the dangers that people face when they make the decision to seek a better life in this country and are often confined to providing free water, food and first aid supplies,” said Zepeda-Millan, who also is a member of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. “Our survey showed that an overwhelming number of Americans across political parties agree that no one should face jail time for being a good Samaritan.”

The policy brief recommends legislation that would end the current efforts to criminalize border relief and calls for an end to the destruction of humanitarian supplies by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Currently, the agency only counts fatalities discovered by its own agents, but the UCLA report suggests that the fatality count also include bodies identified by local government officials, medical examiners and nongovernmental organizations.

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