Indigenous woman charged after protesting wall construction wins case on religious grounds



“After less than an hour of arguments, Judge Bowman agreed that the court’s initial analysis had failed to consider key facts,” Fronteras’ Alisa Zaira Reznick reported. “With those in mind, she said, prosecuting Ortega ‘did impose a substantial burden on the exercise of her religion.’ She said the government failed to prove a compelling interest in its actions and did not use the least restrictive means to stop her protest.”

Reznick captured video of jubilated supporters celebrating Ortega’s “not guilty” verdict on Wednesday. Reznick notes the Hia C-ed O’odham tribe is “not federally recognized and once considered extinct.” But Ortega said her victory is an acknowledgement of the tribe. “Hia C-ed O’odham was in a federal courtroom,” she said in the report. “This means that we’re alive, we’re active, we’re fighters, we have a voice, we’re not an erased tribe.”


Religious Freedom Restoration Act defense has been used by several others despicably arrested and prosecuted for their actions at the southern border in recent years. 

In early 2020, a federal judge reversed the convictions of four No More Deaths humanitarian workers who’d been found guilty of federal misdemeanors for their work leaving water and other lifesaving supplies in the searing desert. “Defendants argue that those actions, taken with the avowed goal of mitigating death and suffering, were sincere exercises of religion and that their prosecution is barred by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” the judge wrote. According court documents, all four are affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church. 

The previous administration twice prosecuted another No More Deaths worker, retrying Scott Daniel Warren on felony charges of harboring undocumented immigrants after his first trial ended in a hung jury in 2019. A second jury acquitted him later that year. He’d faced up to two decades in prison. Once again: Humanitarian aid is not a crime.


In a Living & Fighting interview earlier this month, Ortega described “irreversible damage” to land that affects the wildlife that also calls it home. “The Spring itself is a known bird’s nest,” she said. “So many animals live and rely on that source of water for existence and the wall, what they plan on doing, it doesn’t serve the land, it doesn’t serve the people, it doesn’t serve the animals. It doesn’t serve the future.”

President Joe Biden ordered a halt to border wall construction after taking office, a move legally backed by a nonpartisan government watchdog after a GOP challenge. Citing harm to tribal lands and wildlife, nearly 70 Indigenous rights, wildlife, and civil rights groups have also urged the Biden administration to tear down miles of fencing in Arizona.

Ortega further said in her Living & Fighting interview that she hoped her fight shines a light on the efforts and struggles of the Hia C-ed O’odham peoples.

“We’re alive and we’re well and we want our rights back,” she continued in the interview. “We want our rights to our lands and to what was taken. There’s an effort to revitalize not just the lands, but our own people, and that’s really all we can do because of what’s been done and we’ll be doing this for some time. You know, it’s part of our purpose.”


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