Daniel Strauss simply was lending a helping hand when he and a friend offered three migrants hobbling through the hot desert near the U.S.-Mexico border a ride in his red pickup truck.
Or, Strauss recklessly disregarded the law by assisting foreigners as they illegally crossed into the United States.
In a telephone interview following his June 9 arrest in Arizona, the 23-year-old Colorado College graduate declined to talk about the specifics surrounding his case, but suggested his motive was the former. He has been charged with felonies that could send him to federal prison.
Strauss said he often patrols the desert, looking for migrants who may be in need of water, food or first aid. Some of them need rides to receive proper medical attention in Tucson, he said.
"Any decent human being would want to help people in need, regardless of where they come from," Strauss said via phone from Tucson.
Strauss never expected to find himself at the center of a federal case that has provoked national media attention, strong praise from supporters and ruthless criticism from detractors.
The savage desert
Strauss and Shanti Sellz, a 23-year-old Durango woman, were arrested as they volunteered for No More Deaths, a humanitarian group that aims to reduce the number of migrants who die each year in the savage Arizona desert. Temperatures there this summer often have hit 110 degrees.
The criminal complaint against Strauss and Sellz, filed in U.S. District Court, accuses the two of helping the migrants cross the international line near Sasabe, an Arizona border town, and then later driving them to Tucson. Prosecutors name Emil Hidalgo-Soliz, one of Strauss and Sellz's passengers, as a witness.
Strauss and Sellz each face up to five years in prison if convicted, lawyers say.
"What they did was completely against the law," said Gustavo Soto, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, adding that the two should have called 911 if they thought the migrants needed aid.
Strauss maintains 911 is not a viable option because migrants would lose trust in volunteers and because the Border Patrol takes too long to respond, an allegation disputed by Soto.
Strauss added that he sees his prosecution as an effort by the federal government to target humanitarians because they have focused unwanted media attention on the harsh conditions migrants encounter trying to get around the steel wall the United States erected at the border about a decade ago.
"If anybody stopped the Red Cross from helping people in need, it would be an outrage," Strauss said. "This isn't how countries are supposed to treat humanitarian workers."
First charges in decades
The charges are the first sought against a humanitarian group in decades, said Margo Cowlan, an attorney with the No More Deaths campaign.
"Before this, you have to go back to the 1970s to find prosecutions of humanitarians on the border," she said.
But Sandy Raynor, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Tucson, said prosecutors hope to put the case behind them. Her office is offering a deal that would drop the felony charges against Strauss and Sellz if they agree to plead guilty to lesser, non-felony charges, she said.
Strauss, due back in court later this week, maintains his innocence. However, he said he is considering the deal as a way to put his problems behind him.
Strauss graduated from Colorado College with a degree in sociology in 2004. He said his interest in stopping deaths on the border was piqued in a class called "Globalization and Immigration on the U.S.-Mexican Border."
Eric Popkin, the professor who teaches the class, was in Central America and could not be reached for comment.
Basic first aid
For two summers, Strauss has volunteered at a small camp in Arivaca, Ariz., roughly 20 miles north of the Mexican border.
He said he and others frequently locate migrants in the desert. Many of them have blistered feet or are hungry, he said. Some are dehydrated or severely ill and appear to need medical attention.
Volunteers often administer basic aid, he added. In severe circumstances, they call a lawyer and doctor or nurse for advice on whether they should transport migrants to a place where they can receive medical help.
With more than two months to go in the Border Patrol's annual statistical survey period, this year is expected to be a record-breaker for deaths in the region between Nogales, Mexico, and Tucson, Soto acknowledged.
So far this year, 136 people have died in that stretch, according to the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.
In 2004, 139 people lost their lives crossing the border in the area. In the prior year, 141 died.
-- Michael de Yoanna