Drinking Problem

Members of Humane Borders carry out a mission to provide water to migrants on a deadly trek.

Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, ran a hand across his sweaty forehead and gazed across the cactus flats and rocky hills of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. "Isn't that beautiful out there?" he commented.

"If you're not walking across it and out of water, sure, it's beautiful," replied the church's retired pastor, George Tolman.

The two men, along with three church volunteers, had come to see that there would be water for the people "out there"--Mexican and other migrants crossing the border illegally in search of work, and too often dying of dehydration as they are abandoned by their smugglers and by U.S. immigration policy.

Hoover leads Humane Borders, a faith-based system of 33 member organizations that has set up water barrels along migrant routes through some of the most inhospitable borderland tracts in Arizona and California. Humane Borders does not condone smuggling people into the United States; it advocates policy changes that would make it easier for Mexican citizens to enter and work here legally, and would alter the Border Patrol's fixation on urban crackdowns, which has channeled determined migrants into the open desert.

Until policies change, though, people will continue to trudge through the desert, tragically unprepared for their journeys. As Hoover often says, "We must take death out of the migration equation." Just since June 6, at least 11 people died while crossing the border southwest of Tucson.

Hoover, a clergyman with a doctorate in political science and a specialty in social ethics, is a tall-talking Texan who says he grew up "28 miles downwind of Midland," George W. Bush's old stomping grounds. Hoover is an unashamed media hound, proud of the attention Humane Borders has gotten everywhere from the New York Times to Politically Incorrect to the French weekly Telerama. "Part of our mission is to tell this story," he says.

The story is one of 291 border deaths in fiscal 2001, of a rich nation that awards only 20,000 visas each year to the people of a poor neighboring country where it takes a day of hard toil to earn what a Tucson busboy can make in a single hour, of a government lobbied by agribusiness and other employers who depend on cheap labor not to enforce its own laws against hiring undocumented workers.

Humane Borders wants to rewrite that story, and although it is a non-profit organization, it is allowed to lobby because of its 501(c)4 status under the tax code.

A year ago, the Pima County Board of Supervisors awarded Humane Borders a $25,000 contract to maintain water stations, hoping to save lives and reduce emergency medical costs. On April 4, Libertarian activist Ed Kahn and a handful of other citizens filed suit against the Supervisors and Humane Borders, claiming a conspiracy to misappropriate funds to "provide aid and comfort to foreigners, drug smugglers, and potential terrorists."

"Ed Kahn's lawsuit is an absolutely frivolous piece of junk," says Hoover, relishing the opportunity to "make a mockery of the whole schmeer" in depositions and possibly get sympathetic media coverage. "If this thing goes to open court," Hoover says, "we'll write Ed Kahn a big thank-you letter."

More serious is a legal procedure in which Humane Borders is tangentially involved. In May, two Yuma attorneys filed a $41 million claim against the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Charging that the government's refusal to put water in the refuge contributed to the deaths of 14 migrants a year ago, the claim demands $3.75 million for each family of 11 of the migrants who died there.

Early in 2001, Humane Borders was denied access to the refuge, a rugged, saguaro-studded haven for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, stretching 56 miles along the Arizona-Mexico border. Within weeks, 14 Mexicans had perished along the refuge's "Devil's Path," a dry, nearly shadeless area where daytime temperatures rise well above 100 degrees.

"The government has to take on the responsibility of doing something to safeguard folks who are crossing in these areas that are known to be dangerous," says James Metcalf, one of the lawyers filing the claim. "The legal status of the individuals doesn't mean the landowner can wave off all responsibility. And then there's the fact that you had an organization trying to come into a specific area and volunteer--at no expense to taxpayers--to place water stations that would have saved these lives."

The government, protecting the area's wilderness status, restricts vehicles to a single dirt road through the refuge. Remote tanks would have to be replenished by volunteers carrying heavy water bottles on foot, an excessively "treacherous" situation, according to Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tom Bauer.

Bauer, based at the Fish and Wildlife regional office in Albuquerque, is appalled by the deaths, but disputes that the proposed Humane Borders stations would have been relevant to this incident. "The area that the migrants perished in was at least 12 miles and two mountain ranges away from the nearest proposed Humane Borders water site," he says. "I do not believe under any circumstances it would have assisted those poor people."

"That does not seem correct at all," counters Metcalf. "We have reviewed maps of where the sites would have been and where the individuals who died were found, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. The other thing you have to remember is these folks wandered around in a circular pattern to some degree, so it's a little disingenuous from the agency's standpoint to say something like that."

Following the deaths, Fish and Wildlife did allow 30-foot, blue-flagged poles to be erected at about 10 existing stock tanks on the refuge. The flags call human attention to the open, 10,000-gallon tanks, which are maintained to benefit the antelope. Hoover says the Border Patrol has credited one of those flagged tanks with saving at least 33 lives.

Now, the federal agencies have another five months to respond to the $41 claim, and possibly negotiate a settlement. If that fails, the attorneys will file a civil suit in district court.

OF THE MIGRANTS who died in the past week, nine were found on the Tohono O'odham Reservation. "This is the deadliest migrant trail in the United States," Hoover said, gesturing south toward the Al Chukson area.

He was on Highway 86 between Sells and Why, driving Humane Borders' $35,000 flatbed water truck west toward water stations in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The truck was equipped with a 325-gallon water tank he would fill at the monument headquarters, 10 five-gallon jugs, and a pump feeding a 150-foot hose. In the cab were a satellite phone (volunteers have called for medical help for migrants they've found in the desert), a police scanner set to Border Patrol frequencies, tools and a first-aid kit. Dust devils, more plentiful even than Border Patrol vehicles, rose every couple of miles, Sonoran jinni unable to grant anyone's wishes.

Hoover wishes he could talk tribal officials into letting him set up water stations on their land. Negotiations were set to continue this week, but white folks doing anything on tribal land is always a delicate subject.

"What they intend is good," says Tohono O'odham vice-chairman Henry Ramone. "But people feel that if something like that was set up it has to be monitored so that water will be there all the time. They want to make sure that it's controlled so it doesn't become a negative issue. Our people are very concerned about helping other people, and that's what we've done out here for years, giving (migrants) water and sandwiches."

Among the common objections to the water stations is that they will give migrants a false sense of security, and lure even more people into the desert. Hoover argues that the clusters of blue, 65-gallon tanks marked "agua" are positioned along established routes, and the Border Patrol has promised not to stake them out and so scare migrants away from the water.

Although public opinion remains divided on the water stations, most of the agencies Hoover deals with are non-adversarial, even supportive. Drivers of Border Patrol vehicles approaching from the opposite direction honk and wave at the Humane Borders truck. Three government agencies so far have awarded the group permits to operate on public lands in Arizona, and Hoover is confident that more will soon come.

"We are grateful for the work Humane Borders is doing," says Carlos Flores-Vizcarra, the Mexican consul assigned to Tucson. "We respect and admire it because it is opening people's minds and consciences to the gravity of the problem. But the solution to the problem will be a political solution."

He, Hoover, and observers as diverse as attorney James Metcalf and Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tom Bauer agree on the need for legislative reform of immigration law.

Says Hoover, "We favor policy changes that'll get people out of the desert. Our issue is to change the policies that lead to death in the first place."