Desert Water Spots Mix Charity With Protest of U.S. Policies


Beneath a furnace sun, a group of middle-aged parishioners from Tucson is lugging five-gallon jugs of life into this beautiful but deadly land of stone and thorn.

It is a work of Christian charity in a desert not that different from the one where Jesus wandered. “This is just something I need to do,” says Tracy Carroll, struggling across the heat-blasted rock. She cradled the water in her arms, declining an offer to help with her load.

But it is also a political act of protest against the federal government.

The water these Good Samaritans leave scattered is intended to be drunk by illegal migrants who are traversing, and dying in, some of the most treacherous terrain on the planet.


“We’re holding up a mirror to society,” says the Rev. Robin Hoover, the leader of Humane Borders, a loose federation of volunteers from churches and immigrant rights groups that has begun to erect water stations around the Arizona desert. “We’re saying that we are all, all of us, responsible for what is happening out here.”

David Aguilar, the chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which now employs 1,600 agents here, says he applauds the humanitarian efforts of Humane Borders. “We share the same mission,” Aguilar says, “which is saving lives.”

But Aguilar adds that he has real concerns about the water stations and their tenders. He has warned members of Humane Borders that they will be prosecuted if they cross the line from humanitarian aid to assisting and abetting illegal immigration. It is good and legal to offer a thirsty migrant a drink of water, he says; it is illegal to give him a ride to the nearest freeway.

Unlike other groups that have protested U.S. immigration policies, by erecting crosses to symbolize the dead or by staging volleyball games straddling the border, Humane Borders and another group in California called Water Station have pursued a more direct approach.

John Hunter, a leader of Water Station, said that in the beginning he simply went out into the desert around El Centro and placed flags and water jugs.

“It’s in my backyard, and you read in the newspapers about all these deaths, and apparently nothing much was being done,” says Hunter, a physicist who is now a sporting-goods inventor and the brother of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine).

After plotting deaths on a map, Hunter and his fellow volunteers have placed 100 watering stations in the California desert and hope to set up another 300. At each site, they erect a steel pole with a flag of plastic tarp; at its base is a cardboard box and three or four gallons of water from the supermarket.

Their humanitarian actions are controversial. Most of the empty desert lands used by smugglers and migrants are owned by the federal government as wildlife refuges, national monuments, Air Force bombing ranges and Bureau of Land Management holdings. The groups are meeting with mixed success in persuading federal land managers to allow them to erect water depots.

In California, Hunter has been trying to persuade the Imperial Irrigation District and the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversee the All American Canal, to string lifelines across the irrigation ditch. Dozens of illegal migrants have drowned trying to cross the swift waters of the canal.

To improve safety for people crossing illegally into the United States, Mexican and American officials unveiled a border safety pact on June 22. It calls for a U.S. review of the controversial tight-border policy that has steered Mexicans into dangerous and remote crossings. At the same time, Mexico agreed to consider measures to prevent migrants from crossing over the most deadly deserts, canals and rivers.

In Arizona, Hoover’s group has erected four water stations, two on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and two on private ranches. Their stations hold hundreds of gallons of water and are refilled every week.

In March, Hoover sought to erect water stations in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge; he was turned down in April. In May, 14 migrants died on the refuge. Now Tom Bauer, assistant regional director with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said they hope to accommodate Humane Borders: “We are exploring ways to work with them to provide additional water sources” on the Cabeza Prieta and Buenos Aires refuges.

But even if migrants find water supplies and make it through the refuge, they must cross the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range. Air Force spokesmen said the military may not have the authority to allow Humane Borders access to the range, and that it may be dangerous to do so.

Although Hoover says Border Patrol officials have promised they will not “target” water stations on their patrols, Aguilar, the Tucson sector chief, states firmly: “We are not going to give up any part of the border. It is our responsibility.”

The Border Patrol in the Tucson sector annually apprehends and returns to Mexico hundreds of thousands of illegal entrants. But the agents also rescued 1,245 people in extreme distress last year. When crossers get into trouble, they often go looking for la migra.

Hoover and others in Humane Borders, such as the Rev. John Fife of Tucson, are veterans of the sanctuary movement from the 1980s, which harbored refugees from Central America, and they’re tearing a page from those times, when religion and activism combined into a potent force. Last month the Board of Supervisors of Pima County, which includes Tucson, voted to contribute $25,000 to their cause.

The endgame? Activists and their elected officials have begun to push for a new guest-worker program to legitimize the immigration that is now illegal.

In the short term? “If offering a cup of water in Jesus’ name is forbidden,” says Hoover, “then this country has a bigger problem than immigration.”