death out of the equation
Water stations in the desert aren't
traditional work for a pastor, but then Robin Hoover '74 (Div. '79) isn't
all that traditional. His latest venture is saving the lives of migrant
By Rick Waters '95
still dark on a Saturday morning when a white Chevy pickup pulls into
the parking lot of the First Christian Church of Tucson, Ariz. Out steps
a man in a white cap, pressed jeans, dusty hiking boots and black pipe
tucked inside a loop in his shirt. "You're gonna need a hat,"
he says with a grin, eyeing first-timers unprepared for the searing heat.
This is the
best part of the week for The Rev. Robin Hoover '74 (Div. 79), pastor
of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and founder of Humane
Borders, a humanitarian group that places water stations in the unforgiving
Sonoran desert to keep migrants who cross from Mexico from dying of dehydration.
Half a dozen
5-gallon plastic jugs are locked into one side of the custom-built rig
outfitted with a pump, hose and 350-gallon water tank fixed atop an extended
flat bed. The truck will carry Hoover and a couple of volunteers over
more than 350 miles of baked landscape this hot May morning, through federal
and state land, Tohono O'odham Indian Nation and the Organ Pipe Cactus
twirl like mini-tornadoes across the parched earth and saguaro cacti provide
only slivers of shade as the temperature pushes past 100 degrees. "During
the Biblical flood, we got two-tenths of an inch out here," Hoover
part immigration policy wonk, part salty-talkin' Texan, Hoover chugs along
a two-lane road in the plodding pickup, pointing out narrow paths that
appear in the dry grass every 50 yards or so as he lays out his case.
that," he says. "There's one É Look, there's another."
Each trail runs north from Mexico and ends at an isolated spot along the
road, far from any town. The paths appeared in the late 1990s after the
U.S. Border Patrol clamped down on towns along the border, forcing undocumented
migrants to take their chances in more remote areas. Since then, hundreds
of border crossers have died from hypothermia and dehydration, sometimes
digging desperately in the desert for water before losing consciousness.
"thought they could use the desert as a deterrent," Hoover says.
"They're forcing people down death trails."
should stop them, Hoover says. There shouldn't be a need for fences of
Border Patrol agents. No need for surveillance cameras or GPS tracking
systems. No need for "coyotes" who take their money and lead
them into wilderness with the promise of Phoenix or Tucson on the other
side of every ridge. Not when there is desert.
other activists protested the border strategy, Hoover took more direct
action. Two years ago, his faith-based group -- officially a 501 (c) 4
organization which allows them to lobby unlike other charities -- began
placing 60-gallon water tanks near well-traveled paths across southern
Arizona. Taking empty Coca-Cola syrup tanks, painting them blue, attaching
faucets and writing agua on the side, they had serviceable oases.
put up a 30-foot flagpole next to each station, attaching a blue flag
on top to alert the thirsty. "This is not rocket science," he
says with a laugh, "but it took a rocket scientist to teach us how
to do it."
got the idea from John Hunter, a physicist who set out water jugs near
the border in California for migrants. In June 2000, these veterans of
the sanctuary movement that sheltered migrants during the 1980s met to
discuss the latest deaths along the border. Hoover decided the plan would
work in Arizona.
And it has.
Under his leadership, Humane Borders has grown to 2,000 volunteers, from
two water stations to close to 40.
2001, he tried to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow
Humane Borders to place a water station in the Cabeza Prieta National
Wildlife Refuge, but the agency refused. A month later, after 14 Mexican
migrants died in the refuge of dehydration, the group was granted permission
to set up a station.
Hoover has emerged as a leading critic of immigration policy. He has condemned
the Border Patrol practice of refusing to detain injured migrants to avoid
paying for medical care, and Humane Borders has delivered blankets and
health kits to shelters in Mexican border towns -- along with maps that
pinpoint the location of the water stations.
appears to be producing results. In its first year, the group replenished
5,000 gallons of water, and the amount has grown in the two years since.
In April 2002, the Border Patrol acknowledged that the effort is saving
lives: Agents who detained a group of 33 border crossers in the desert
reported that the migrants had survived in part by stopping at a water
the Border Patrol hasn't always been entirely comfortable with Humane
Borders. The Border Patrol's Washington office worries that too much publicity
is going to create a false sense of security for migrants, but agents
in the local sector greet Hoover and his volunteers with a hearty handshake
as he passes through the national monument.
guys are a godsend," says agent KC Wilcox at the north entrance to
Organ Pipe. "Crossing the desert shouldn't be a death sentence."
and the Border Patrol more or less have a gentleman's agreement that agents
won't stake out the water stations, but they will pick up any migrants
they come upon.
Hoover vows not to aid migrants, other than filling up the water stations
drove toward the border in his Chevy truck weighed down by water jugs,
he spoke about the Border Patrol's motives. "They know they can't
encourage death. They're losing the PR war. Their only option is to say,
'We like death. Let's have some more.'
1993, the Border Patrol and INS have utterly failed to reduce the number
of crossings at the border. What they're doing is pushing the migrants
into more dangerous areas of the desert. What we're doing is humanitarian.
It's reducing the cost to the government, both federal and county. The
fewer deaths, the less expense of cleaning up corpses and transporting
bodies. That's why I'm famous for saying, 'We're taking death out of the
sounds media savvy, that's because he is. The bearded, fit man of 51 has
appeared on MSNBC, CNN and The Jim Lerher News Hour and been quoted and
featured in The New York Times, Denver Post, Arizona
Republic and a handful of European newspapers.
is really a Band-Aid operation," Hoover says, "but maybe it
will draw attention to the deeper issue, and the policy we have around
the borders will change. I know we have to have borders, but I wish we
could have a border that was more open and fluid."
issue touches numerous industries -- ranching, environment, health care,
law enforcement -- and no one is happy with it. But Hoover has some ideas.
"Let's set up a guest worker program, with registered participants.
That way we know who is coming across and what their background is."
he's gotten an audience with the state's most influential lawmaker --
Sen. John McCain. But until laws change, Hoover will continue filling
the tanks. As Hoover steers his truck into the national monument's maintenance
area, a smiling manager immediately brings out a hose.
allowed to fill up here?" a volunteer asks from the back seat.
Hoover says. "I'm invited."
information, visit www.humaneborders.org. Contact Robin Hoover at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.