TOPICS > Politics

Humane Borders

June 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Heat and thirst killed 14 illegal Mexican immigrants late last month as they wandered the desert after crossing the Arizona border, and the broiling summer season is just beginning. The deaths have sparked a humanitarian effort to protect the migrants. Ted Robbins of KUAT, Tucson, reports.

TED ROBBINS: Carrying five gallon jugs of water through the Arizona desert in June is a punishing task. But these folks volunteered for it. They are members of a year-old religious group known as Humane Borders. It was formed to help Mexican migrants who illegally cross into the U.S. woefully unprepared for the sun and heat. In the last three years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates more than 1,000 migrants have died of various causes trying to cross into the United States. This time of year, in this place, it’s the heat and the lack of water that kills them, almost 20 just since May. Humane Borders volunteer Stan Curd says he is motivated to try to stop the deaths by the golden rule.

STAN CURD: Doing, you know, to other people like you’d like to be treated, you know. And kind of an empathy with these people that don’t have much, looking for a better way of life.

TED ROBBINS: The migrants are forced to cross in the desert, these people say, because the Border Patrol is heavily policing safer places in and around cities. That makes it very difficult to cross there.

REV. ROBIN HOOVER, Human Borders: No wires, no people, no roads– excuse me, there are a lot of people. That’s why we’re here.

TED ROBBINS: Humane borders leader is Reverend Robin Hoover, pastor of the first Christian church in Tucson. Along with providing aid, he makes no bones about wanting to challenge U.S. Immigration policy.

REV. ROBIN HOOVER: We’re trying to take death out of the immigration equation. We would like to place as much water in the path of the migrants coming forward so that they will not die. In doing that particular activity, we invite a whole lot of the public into the conversation, and we’re trying to effect changes in INS policy that will get people out of the desert.

TED ROBBINS: Reporter: Right now, humane borders has two water stations, both in Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument. Not only has the national park service given permission for the water stations, it’s allowing Humane Borders to use park water. Monument superintendent Bill Wellman supports the effort for humanitarian reasons.

BILL WELLMAN: I think all of our ancestors arrived in this country one way or another, and not all of them legally. It’s nothing a person should have to die for.

TED ROBBINS: Critics concede these good Samaritans have good intentions, but they say the water may actually act as a magnet for illegal migrants, that in turn will simply attract the Border Patrol. Tucson sector Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels says the water stations are not being targeted.

ROB DANIELS: We have said all along that we’re not going to be stationing agents at the water tanks with the thought in mind of having the aliens come to us. We have a large area of 281 miles of international border to patrol at the line. There’s also a lot of other areas north of the border that we are patrolling, as well. We feel that as long as the effort is out there to remove death from the equation, that the end result will be a very, very positive one.

TED ROBBINS: The Border Patrol does not need to actually have agents here to know when migrants are present but Robin Hoover believes that the patrol is letting migrants come to drink.

REV. ROBIN HOOVER: Obviously there are monitors out here in the ground that pick up seismic detectors, and they send a signal to another location to indicate where migrants are. We have, anecdotally, from rangers here in this installation, that Border Patrol ignore their sensors in our vicinity.

TED ROBBINS: Park superintendent Bill Wellman sees no conflict between the Park Service and the Border Patrol.

BILL WELLMAN: Of course, their primary mission is to prevent illegal entry into the country, which isn’t our primary mission. Our primary mission is to protect park resources.

TED ROBBINS: Migrants appear to be drinking the water. More than two-thirds of the 130 gallons in the tanks at this water station were gone by the time the volunteers showed up to refilled them. The tanks are refilled roughly once a week. The water stations are next to phone lines, which make recognizable landmarks. Most migrants cross at night. The rustling of these flags is their signal that water is close. So is State Highway 85, where migrants who make it this far are often picked up and driven north to relative safety. In a hurry, some leave their things behind, including water jugs that were once crucial for survival but are no longer needed.

REV. ROBIN HOOVER: We would create so many, I don’t know, say a dozen safe passage corridors here where people would know where water is if they would simply walk east or west they would encounter water.

TED ROBBINS: Humane Borders is negotiating with additional federal, state, local and private land managers in hopes of establishing more water stations in the coming months.