"It's not just about the aid work," Schnitzler told Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear on Friday. "It's also about the people that we try to help, and I think that's the broader target here."
The case before US Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco in Tucson, Arizona, involves Natalie Renee Hoffman, Oona Meagan Holcomb, Madeline Abbe Huse and Zaachila I. Orozco-McCormick, who on the afternoon of August 13, 2017, drove onto the grounds of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to place food and water packages for migrants making their way across the terrain.
The four women were later hit with misdemeanor charges for entering and operating a vehicle in a restricted area without a permit and for abandoning personal property inside the refuge. This latest trial is just one of three cases involving volunteers with No More Deaths.
"We are fortunate to have had an outpouring of support, but it's all grounded in the idea that everyone is a little bit worried about the criminalization of humanitarian aid and what that would mean for this kind of work in the desert," Schnitzler told host Walter Smolarek. "It's definitely an important trial and important case."
"The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is the area in question, is one of the deadliest migration corridors in the [US] Southwest, and we know that because when we began to have a humanitarian presence on the refuge, we began to recover more human remains than had been previously documented," she continued.
Schnitzler went on to note that many volunteers are concerned that if the prosecution wins their case, it could lead to detrimental setbacks for humanitarian groups. "If aid work like this is successfully prosecuted, what's the next step? Who else is in danger, and is this part of a larger escalation of government repression designed to deter people from helping others?" she questioned.
The Arizona Republic reported that during a cross examination of Brian Krukosi, a senior officer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the official revealed that after the August 2017 incident, he was told to direct No More Deaths' volunteers inquiring about permits to his supervisor.
Per Krukosi, there was a "do not issue" permit list for No More Deaths' members, however, he later clarified after questioning that the list only included the names of the volunteers on trial.
But this isn't the first mention of such a list. An article published by The Intercept this week revealed that aside from officials continuously removing food and water left behind by activists, the refuge also maintained a blacklist of sorts that named various volunteers who had placed supplies within a 60-mile stretch of the Arizona desert along the US-Mexico border.
"It's scary to think that there might be a broader apparatus at play in terms of a concerted government effort to crack down on the work that we do," she told Smolarek.
Among the nine charged individuals there is 36-year-old Scott Warren. Unlike the four women whose trial has just begun, Warren is facing three felony counts of harboring and conspiracy for offering food, water and a place to sleep to two migrants in January 2018. He was arrested the following month.
"We believe that humanitarian aid should never be a crime. It's pretty simple; our group's mission is to prevent death and suffering along the US border," Schnitzler said.
Warren's trial and that of the four other volunteers is set to begin later this year.