Scott Warren describes the landscape of the borderlands and the cultural and ecological effects of border policy on the region. Photo by Clara Migoya 

For the first time since his arrest in January 2018, cultural geographer Scott Warren returned to the stage to speak at the Patagonia Public Library. Warren, a volunteer with the humanitarian group No More Deaths, was acquitted by a jury in Tucson Federal Court in November 2019 of two felony charges of harboring migrants. A June 2019 trial that accused him of conspiracy ended when jurors failed to reach a verdict. 

More than 70 people filled the seats and lined the walls of Cady Hall on Thursday, Feb. 6, bundled in thick sweaters, coats, and even blankets to ward off the cold. Library Director Laura Wenzel had anticipated the high turnout. “In the Southwest, a lot of people would consider Scott Warren to be a household name in humanitarian aid,” she said. 

With Warren’s reputation preceding him, some audience members expressed more excitement for meeting the speaker than for the topic of his speech, titled, “Landscape of Migration in the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands.” “We heard about Scott Warren being arrested,” said Robin Kulibert. “We wanted to hear about his experience.” Carolyn Shafer said she’d come, in part, for the chance to tell Warren in person how much she appreciated his courage. 

Warren’s speech, however, did not focus on his run-ins with federal authorities. Rather, he delivered a lecture on the landscape of the borderlands. 

“For many of us, the border is a lived experience,” Warren said. “Perhaps you’ve experienced the violence of it.” Though much of his talk focused on Ajo, AZ, where Warren has lived and worked for years, the content was familiar to many audience members; the borderlands are a shared experience. 

Warren discussed both the border that delineates the landscape and the border enforcement that shapes it. He said the first iteration of the border wall was a fence built in 1910, and the first people to feel the border as a hard line were the natives whose land has always blanketed both sides. 

In the more than a century since, many walls and barriers have been erected along the U.S.- Mexico border, often under the policy of prevention through deterrence, the status quo of border enforcement since the 1990’s. 

Prevention through deterrence has been the main argument behind the newest border wall. It’s also been the policy largely driving the need for humanitarian aid work like that which Warren was arrested for. Because of tightened immigration restrictions, heightened security at ports of entry, increased surveillance and physical barriers, migrants often attempt to cross the border through remote and dangerous regions. 

“The landscape conceals as much as it reveals,” Warren lectured, sharing newspaper clippings of migrant bodies discovered in the region. In the early 2000s he’d found mentions of these deaths among notices of petty crime and arrests in his local newspaper’s police beat; in the surrounding landscape, these bodies were likewise tucked away, burned unrecognizable by the sun. 

Warren also discussed the effects on the landscape of this diverted traffic. Protected wilderness like Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is now crisscrossed with foot trails and over 20,000 miles of road, a majority created by BP vehicles, according to a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service that Warren referenced. 

In Ajo, according to Warren, it’s still the norm to offer food, water, a phone, or even a home to migrants crossing the border, despite the federal government’s attempts to criminalize these actions. “It’s just what you do,” he said. “My arrests didn’t stop the tradition of hospitality in my town.” 

Warren closed with an image of border wall construction in Organ Pipe National Monument. Though he hasn’t been able to bring himself to see the new border wall first-hand, Warren returned from his trials in Tucson to find Ajo full of construction workers. 

After a brief period spent “lying low” back home, he has resumed giving talks and sharing his research on the landscapes of the borderlands. Warren’s presentation in Patagonia was made possible by the Arizona Humanities’ AZ Speaks program.