His Brother Is Immigrants’ Keeper
If there’s any local official who can take credit for the layers of steel fencing dividing the hills of Tijuana from San Diego, it’s Rep. Duncan Hunter. The conservative congressman has focused a large portion of his 22-year career on trying to seal the border with Mexico.
The imposing fences have thwarted many undocumented migrants, but they have also pushed the flow of illegal immigration east to the deserts and mountains of Imperial County. In this rugged land, more than 400 migrants in the last seven years have succumbed to suffocating heat, bone-chilling cold and other dangers.
To human rights activists and immigration advocates, the deaths are proof that the border crackdown promoted by Hunter and other officials is misguided and inhumane.
So it has been a seemingly incongruous and surprising turn of events that has delivered the activists a new ally--John Hunter, the Republican congressman’s brother.
Disturbed by the border crackdown’s human toll, the younger Hunter began lugging gallon jugs of water out to the desert two years ago, hoping they would be found in time by desperate immigrants.
Today, his Water Station project has turned into a weekly spring and summer ritual that draws as many as 100 volunteers. And John Hunter’s brother has become one of the project’s strongest supporters. The congressman even helped get permits to set up the aid stations on federal land.
To some human rights advocates, Duncan Hunter’s endorsement of the border aid program is a strange anomaly from the man they blame for helping make crossings more dangerous in the first place. The congressman considers his actions all of a piece: A fortified border, he says, need not be a deadly one.
John Hunter tries to stay out of the politics. Although it took him some time to convince skeptics that his relief efforts are sincere, the younger Hunter said all he wants to do is stop people from dying.
“It’s a very ironic situation,” said Enrique Morones, a former executive of the San Diego Padres, who helps run the Water Station project. “His brother is putting up a wall. And he’s saving the lives of people trying to cross in the most dangerous areas, because of that wall.”
Those who know the Hunter brothers said that, although the impulses that drive them appear to be at odds, both have something in common.
“Both Duncan and John are very public-spirited,” said state Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), who has volunteered on John’s project. “They just took very different approaches on this one. It’s like the yin and the yang.”
The brothers grew up on a ranch outside Riverside, along with three other siblings, children of a housing developer who was active in local Republican politics. Despite their eight-year age difference, the two were good friends who hunted and did chores together.
Duncan went from a stint in the Army in Vietnam to law school and then to legal aid work in San Diego’s working-class Barrio Logan. Once in Congress, he joined a cadre of young legislators rallying around Newt Gingrich.
Meanwhile, John spent a year in the West Texas desert prospecting for uranium after college before earning a doctorate in particle physics and working on satellite technology at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Now, he’s a toy inventor.
The younger Hunter described himself as a “George Bush kind of conservative” who is largely apolitical, other than some door-knocking for his brother Duncan in 1980. Calling himself the “classic” distracted scientist, John Hunter said he didn’t think much about border issues until he began reading about the number of immigrants dying in Imperial County. He was horrified.
“Nobody was doing anything,” said the 46-year-old, who lives north of San Diego in Poway. “If they were registered voters, everyone and their mothers would be out saving them.”
John told Duncan about his plan to set up water stations in the desert, and the congressman helped secure permits from the Bureau of Land Management.
“When people are dying of thirst in the desert, you don’t step over their bodies,” Duncan Hunter, 54, said in an interview.
The congressman said there is nothing contradictory about his support for saving immigrants and his pursuit of stronger border enforcement.
“The best service you can do for border security and for would-be illegal immigrants is to stop them at the border before they travel into this very harsh desert environment,” he said.
John has mixed feelings about the border fencing, saying it has helped keep out drug dealers and smugglers. But at the same time, the measure has exacted a severe human cost, he said.
“I don’t want to put up a Berlin Wall next to Mexico,” he said.
Their differences have led to some interesting discussions at family gatherings, both said. But neither brother likes to talk publicly about where he parts views with the other.
“Duncan’s a great brother,” John said.
“John is a very big-hearted person,” Duncan said.
On a recent May morning, John Hunter bumped south down Highway 98 in a pickup, the Yuha Desert desert rolling before him.
Heat descends with a force in this barren borderland, blanching the sky white along the horizon. Ocotillo bushes dot the desert floor, their straggly arms stretching out like the bones of scarecrows.
In the back of his pickup, Hunter carries a rolled-up map marked with colored lines indicating where migrants have died. Orange signifies a death by heat exposure; blue is a drowning in the All-American Canal that runs along the border; yellow represents deaths from unknown causes. The map is speckled with color.
“Look at this desert. It’s killed a huge number of people,” he said. “To me, I consider it like a serial murderer.”
As the temperature rose, Hunter and a handful of volunteers trudged out onto the sand and filled cardboard boxes marked “AGUA” with one-gallon jugs of water. Over the boxes, they raised flags on tall poles, the large blue cloths standing out like beacons against the distant, dun-colored hills.
The first year, he and his four children and a nephew set up 70 aid stations around the desert. This year, Hunter hopes to erect 300 water stations before the hot season, when temperatures can climb to 120 degrees. Every weekend, he will make the journey to the desert to refill the boxes with water.
The work can be awkward, as it throws him together with activists who have outspokenly criticized his brother’s politics. They know he does not share their condemnation of the border crackdown, and steer clear of the subject.
“I don’t think he sees the overall picture, but I respect what he’s trying to do,” said Roberto Martinez, the longtime leader of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social action organization. “If he can save one life, more power to him.”
Hunter becomes uncomfortable when the conversation turns to questions of the congressman’s policies.
The officials who erected the fencing did not intend to encourage immigrants to attempt the often-deadly journey to the east, he said. “I’m confident that they didn’t foresee what would happen.”
As for Duncan, “he knows how I feel, and I think he’s helped me enough that we don’t argue the fine points,” he added. “Rather than cast blame, let’s just move forward.”
John saves his ire for officials who know about deaths but still do nothing.
“The ones I really don’t get along with are those who hate these people for crossing,” he said as his pickup rumbled south. “No one really owns the Earth. It belongs to everyone. We have to abide by the law. I believe in a strong border. But people have to come first.”
Known for his hawkish views and blunt manner, Duncan Hunter has made policing the U.S.-Mexico boundary one of the central preoccupations of his congressional career. His Web site features a 13-page chronology of his efforts to secure the border.
Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has proposed stationing troops along the international line. On his suggestion, the National Guard strung together corrugated steel mats to replace the chain-link fence dividing the countries along parts of the border.
He has lobbied to double the number of Border Patrol agents nationwide to 20,000 and has pushed to construct a “triple fence” along the 14-mile westernmost stretch of border to keep out drug traffickers and illegal immigrants.
After some modifications, a pilot project began in 1997 in San Diego, where a 16-foot-tall secondary steel fence was erected.
“I tell you, the fence was derided by a lot of folks, but it’s been good for law enforcement on both sides,” said Hunter, who lives in Alpine, a suburb east of San Diego.
The congressman’s stances have led some to label him xenophobic and evoked comparisons with Pat Buchanan. That reputation was on the minds of wary activists when they first heard about his brother’s project.
El Centro resident Roberto Rubio was so suspicious of John Hunter’s intentions that he originally joined Water Station as a spy, worried the aid stations were traps.
“I said, ‘This guy needs to be watched, because he’s Duncan’s brother,’” Rubio said. But before long, he said, he realized Hunter was sincere and now he is one of the project’s most ardent supporters.
Morones, the former vice president with the Padres baseball team, was so taken with Hunter’s single-handed attempt to save lives that he has agreed to become president of the project.
“At first, I didn’t know what to think of him,” Morones said. “As I got to know him, I was impressed. Here’s a guy who rolls up his sleeves and does something.”
Last year, Hunter and Morones expanded the aid stations to the winter, setting out emergency cold weather kits, with clothes and food, in the mountains. They are working on a Web site that will contain information and stories about migrants who have died, and billboards along the border warning people about the dangers of crossing.
Hunter wants to prevent the frequent drownings in the All-American Canal, a polluted waterway that hews along the border. In the last seven years, 168 migrants have drowned trying to cross the swift-moving waters, according to statistics kept by the Mexican Consulate in Calexico.
John Hunter thought he had a perfect solution: stringing up ropes and buoys across the canal to be used as lifelines.
But the five-member board of the Imperial Irrigation District argued the lines would cause more deaths by encouraging people to cross. They rejected the proposal last year.
Hunter said he’s not discouraged. And he has someone on his side: His brother Duncan agrees that the ropes could help save lives.
And if the lifelines don’t fly, the congressman has another idea: “We can always fence the canal.”