Where Mercy Flows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three minivans and a pickup truck pull up in front of a house on Pleasant Street in East Los Angeles, and nine volunteers climb out to pack the vehicles with 100 or so gallon jugs of water stored in the carport. As they finish, Father Richard Estrada, a tall man in jeans and a white shirt, calls everyone together. They join hands as he prays, "Heavenly Father, help us save lives."

It sounds melodramatic in the morning light, but by the end of the day, the words seem prophetic. The water is bound for the El Centro desert, where it will be left for those crossing on foot in heat that can reach 120 degrees.

Estrada, who works with homeless people, has pulled runaway teens from a collision course with drugs, fed women and children he finds under freeway bridges and served sandwiches to undocumented immigrants looking for day jobs on street corners.

From the day laborers, and those who came to his downtown office looking for food, he had heard harrowing stories of illegal border crossers dying from the desert heat. It was not hard to spot the faces of those who had survived the passage. "I saw guys who were burned bright red," he says. "I asked them what happened. Then I realized--they walked here."

Estrada and several other priests had tried without success to organize an effort to take water to the border. Then, one morning last spring, he woke to the voice of San Diego entrepreneur John Hunter, who was on the radio describing a program he called "Water Station" to set up 2,000 relief points on U.S. land that stretches across the lower edge of California from Ogilby to Ocotillo. It was, admittedly, a small, stopgap response to the needs generated by a massive wave of illegal immigration. Last year alone, Border Patrol agents in California apprehended nearly 400,000 illegal migrants and returned them to the Mexican border. Dealing with the root of the problem would take governments, not water stations.

But Hunter had a feeling of urgency. "Should people be crossing the border illegally?" he asks. "No. But should we just let them die? No."

Estrada called and offered to help, becoming a regular volunteer in Hunter's effort, which, since June 2000, has involved everyone from Boy Scouts to state Assembly members. So far, they have set up 300 stations in the El Centro area, each consisting of a cardboard box filled with six or more 1-gallon jugs of water and a bright-blue flag flying from a metal pole.

Many of the sites are grave markers, set up where bodies were found. Twenty-four people died of dehydration in the El Centro desert last summer, at least 18 so far this year. August and September are the worst months.

In the past year, Estrada has delivered more gallons of water than he can remember. Once a month in summer, he and volunteers from San Conrado Catholic Mission church in Elysian Park, where he says Mass, caravan to the tumbleweed town of Ocotillo, eight miles north of the Mexican border. There are unscheduled runs too. One night last month, he and a couple of friends filled a moving van with 1,000 gallons and drove down.

Even with all he has seen in this work, Estrada starts this day with some anticipation. "When I go to the desert to deliver water, anything can happen," he says. "It's beyond my control."

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In Ocotillo, the group's first stop is the Desert Kitchen Cafe. The volunteers Estrada has rounded up for this trip don't know each other well, and people introduce themselves in modest terms. No one mentions what they do for a living or where they live. Instead, they tell where in Mexico they were born, when they immigrated and what their families are like. One man was married at San Conrado, several have children who were baptized there.

"If you struggled as an immigrant, your heart is more open to other immigrants," says Lupe Mendoza-Fernandez, in her mid-40s, who was 1 year old when her family emigrated from Guanajuato. She is the only woman in Estrada's group today. "They were pushing this as man's work, too hard for women," she says. "I'm going to tell the other women at church it's not too hard. They should come."

Estrada's own path to the desert was less direct. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he owned a beauty salon after high school. A girlfriend had been a student at a beauty school, he says. "One day I went inside. That was it; I loved it." But nightclubbing with money in his pocket and patent-leather shoes on his feet couldn't chase away the idea that first came to him when he was a third-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes in East Los Angeles. He decided then that he wanted to be a priest, and finally, in his mid-20s, he entered the seminary. His calling, to work with the poor, has drawn him more and more deeply into the lives and needs of Mexican immigrants.

Before the burgers arrive, Roberto Rubio, a retired building contractor in his 60s who works for Estrada in El Centro, joins the group. John Hunter, he says, is repairing water stations on Highway S-2, a few miles from town.

Weaving through rubble and prickly cactus, Estrada's group joins up with Hunter's. A dozen or so cars, minivans and small trucks inch down the two-lane highway. Each one is packed with water, equipment and people power. The plan is to work on the stations closest to the road. Other times, Estrada says, he has been far from town, surrounded by hills the color of refried beans.

At each station, the volunteers rush from their air-conditioned cars to the site, assemble a cardboard box and fill it with jugs of water. A group of Boy Scouts from El Centro replaces the plastic flags that have been ripped apart by the wind.

"It's a way to help out," says DaVillion Piper, 14, a Scout volunteering for the first time. "Otherwise people can die of thirst." The troop leader, Blake Miles, has been working with Hunter for months. He invited the Scouts to join him this time.

The young teenagers leap over razor-sharp brambles and chase each other into gullies, even after four hours in the midday heat. Some of the older workers have to sit out a stop or two and rest. Estrada has tied a T-shirt around his head.

One station finished, the desert caravan is set to roll. The group is large by the standards of this handmade relief project. Estrada usually brings two or three volunteers with him on his monthly runs, and Hunter has a core of two or three who work with him every weekend. Sometimes, like today, as many as a dozen others join them.

People pile into any car. One of the returning volunteers, Bill Wallace, is a travel agent who lives in Alpine, east of San Diego. He has filled the dashboard of his truck with castoffs he picks out of the rocks--a child's leather sandal, part of a transistor radio. "The other day someone found a bag of Pampers baby's diapers," he says. These are the constant reminders that real lives are being lost and personal destinies played out along this dusty road.

*

Debate about how to deal with undocumented border crossings is as heated as the summer sand. Tighter controls in the larger border towns, put into effect during the Clinton administration, have resulted in higher illegal traffic flows through remote areas that are considerably more dangerous.

President Bush has said he wants to improve conditions, and in June he and Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, announced a border safety pact. The U.S. will review tight border policies that steer migrants into dangerous territories. Mexico will consider measures that prevent migrants from crossing through deadly deserts and waterways.

Hunter leaves the big questions to politicians, including his brother, Duncan, a Republican congressman in Alpine who favors tight border controls as well as the water project. "The real problem," says John Hunter, "is the Mexican economy and government, but someone else will have to take care of that."

At times he has defied the law by setting up relief stations before he received the required permits from U.S. parks officials who control some of the land he's targeted near the border. "The permitting process takes weeks," he protests.

But relations between Border Patrol agents and Hunter's volunteers have been friendly. "We understand that they are trying to save lives," says Manuel Figueroa, a Border Patrol agent in the El Centro sector. "We support their intentions." Hunter remains focused on small victories. Based on the amount of water that is used each week--about 100 gallons--and limited anecdotal evidence, he figures that his group's efforts have saved at least one life, and perhaps as many as 10. Estrada wants everyone he knows to volunteer for this work, at least once. "I'd like to see doctors, lawyers, other professionals come with me," he says. He has received thousands of donated gallons of water, "but it's hard to get people to make the trip," he says. "It's not glamorous. You drive four hours from Los Angeles, get here, and it's hot."

The afternoon heat leaps to 113 degrees. A fierce wind flattens curly hair and smears the eye makeup of one of the female volunteers. Now and then members of the group will pause to scan the nearby hills or look over their shoulders, half expecting to see a battered figure staggering toward them. Rubio has come across these exhausted, dehydrated travelers. He once picked up a 17-year-old boy who got left behind by a "coyote," the smuggler he had paid to lead him across the border. "He didn't have any food or water with him," says Rubio. "They never do. They always think they will be safe without it."

Many who pay with their lives for such mistakes get hastily buried in a pauper's grave. At Holtville, a small town a few miles from Ocotillo, most of the graves are marked "John Doe," the designation given the bodies by the coroner. "People shed their clothes in the heat," Rubio says. "When the bodies are found they have no identification." Above most of the headstones there is a white cross stenciled in black: "Los Olvidados," the forgotten ones.

Around 4 in the afternoon, Hunter declares the work finished for the day. Estrada's wilted caravan pulls into the Ocotillo Motel and Trailer Park, past the faded pink motor homes into the backyard. Hunter is a friend of the owner, who lets him store water in one of the trailers.

At night, the trailer park turns into a social hub. Neighbors gather around the picnic tables to talk and drink. Long before nightfall, Estrada starts angling for a stop at the Lazy Lizard. He can still taste the cold beer he drank at the bar on his last trip.

One of the volunteers, Democratic Assemblyman Juan Vargas of San Diego, seems to take a personal interest in border issues. His parents emigrated from Mexico in the '40s, and he worked with orphaned children in El Salvador during his five years in the Jesuit novitiate after high school. "In the desert today," he says, "I couldn't help thinking, I used to go there to pray." Now he hauls water in a cap that reads "Do Something."It is dark by the time Estrada's group, Hunter and Vargas reach the banks of the All American Canal outside Holtville. This waterway is Hunter's next target. Hundreds of border crossers have tried to navigate it in recent years. More have drowned here than have died in the desert.

Local farmers rely on the water to irrigate crops, but Hunter has come to resent the peaceful-looking stream. He wants to install guide ropes to help make the crossing safer. In the dark canal, brightened by safety lights, a yellow raft bumps against the near bank. Some well-prepared traveler left it there once he was safely across. As the three men look out at the wind-tossed water, each one seems to be making plans. Estrada will stay close to the raw experience, ministering to the border crossers he meets on the streets, and those whose presence he only senses here in the desert.

"When I was in the seminary," he says, "I read about a group of priests who worked in the factories. I said to myself, that's the way to do it. Work with the people."

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