Humane Borders – The Day I Gave Water to Migrants

If it’s true that everything is politics then I made a strong statement volunteering with Humane Borders back in 2003. Of course I didn’t mean to. All I was doing was researching life on the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona. But there you have it.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, one source of research for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, came from the above-mentioned two-week trip to Arizona. I had reached out before I left on my trip to the faith-based outfit, Humane Borders, which was founded in 2000 to stem the tide of migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert. Humane Borders places blue water jugs at pre-selected locations throughout the desert, claiming to meet a humanitarian need for those crossing the brutal, scorching terrain. It does not specifically endorse the migrants’ journey; nor does it repudiate it.

Two Humane Borders volunteers fill jugs at a water station.

Two Humane Borders volunteers fill jugs at a water station.

Humane Borders: “This Organization is Not a Rebel Organization”

Humane Borders is not, or so it says, making a political statement with its water jugs. Of course, everyone has their own interpretation of what people and organizations do, and Humane Borders has received its share of criticism over the years, including in this Washington Times article, for encouraging and abetting migration, as well as for aiding alien and drug smugglers.

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After I called Reverend Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, to schedule a sit-down interview, he said that was fine and asked me to meet him at his church, First Christian in Tucson, on a particular morning. When I showed up one sunny day several weeks later, instead of finding a cool office, some comfortable chairs and an offer of a cup of coffee, I found myself thrown in with a group of volunteers sorting dried fruit, hoses and water tanks in the church parking lot.

Humane Borders Volunteer Fills Water Jug

I photographed this Humane Borders volunteer filling a water jug in the Sonoran Desert.

Reverend Hoover, who was there, gave me a quick nod. My name was on the list of volunteers scheduled to head out into the desert that day and drop off the water jugs. Really? I thought. I guess he figured an interview wouldn’t be nearly as effective as getting me out there to see what Humane Borders was all about.

Within a few hours, five of us were headed west out of Tucson on I-86, which snakes and slaloms for more than two hours through the heart of the Sonoran Desert to the oddly named town of Why. We were in a somewhat beat-up pick-up truck with one giant, sausage-shaped water tank drilled into the truck’s flat bed, and surrounded by tied-down empty water containers we would fill from the tank and pour into the jugs for border crossers once we arrived at our designated locations. The truck didn’t have the best suspension in the world (it’s amazing all my teeth survived the journey) and we spent time during that long tedious ride across the desert discussing current events and, in particular, the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Humane Borders Volunteers Hit the Desert

It was me riding shotgun, the Latino driver of our truck and three twenty-somethings in the back seat. We joked about the spoof someone had put online where if you Googled “weapons of mass destruction”, the first search result was a play off the Page Not Displayed message: These Weapons of Mass Destruction Cannot be Displayed. We talked about the likelihood that Iraq had anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks.

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We didn’t know each other but camaraderie came easily since we were all in the vehicle together with the common purpose of working to save lives and no one was really talking about much else those days except for Iraq.

Filling water jugs

The Humane Borders water tank on the truck bed is used to fill water jugs.

We weren’t driving all the way out to Why, of course. Reverend Hoover and his team do more than randomly place water jugs in the desert. Even back then, only three years into the existence of Humane Borders, the outfit already had sufficient data about migrant deaths to have a sense of where the popular, high-risk crossing corridors were, and where water jugs would be most beneficial.

Our group of five ended up, as a result, in some of the most remote locations of the Sonoran Desert, including in the Pipe Organ Cactus National Monument, which is federally protected land due to all the plants and wildlife. We reached the location where we would set up the jugs, and our driver (whose name I cannot recall) began muttering, as he pulled out the hose, about all the desert capers, pomegranates and cereus that migrants trash on their way north.

It took a while to fill the large jugs from the tank and water containers. The jugs were originally 55-gallon syrup containers, donated by Coca Cola and painted blue to stand out in the desert when placed alongside flags as indicators to border crossers of their location. The color also prevents algae from growing in the water.

Giving water to migrants is an experience unique to the southwestern border. Our driver had been on many volunteer runs before and told me he has seen groups of border crossers who don’t feel safe enough to get too close but linger within sight of the jugs so that after Humane Borders volunteers have gone, they will come in for water before continuing their northbound journey.

Humane Borders in Recent Years

It has been more than 10 years since the day I volunteered but Humane Borders still is going strong. The Christian Science Monitor reported back in 2007 that Humane Borders had 63 trained drivers, approximately 8,000 volunteers and 84 water stations on both sides of the Arizona border. The organization’s pump trucks make around 750 trips out to the desert each year.

Humane Borders water jug outside Rio Rico, AZ

While following a popular migrant route, I came across this Humane Borders water jug outside Rio Rico, AZ.

Robin Hoover’s fame and/or notoriety has also put him in something of an international spotlight, and he presented on human rights issues for the World Council of Churches during United Nations Advocacy Week in November 2008.

As mentioned above, Humane Borders has been the subject of heavy scrutiny. But the organization’s impact has been significant enough that its leaders have criticisms of their own. They accuse those actively opposed to illegal migration of lingering around their blue jugs hoping to nab border crossers. At least in this 2009 report by the Green Party of the United States, the Border Patrol would seem to have agreed not to watch water stations. But private vigilante groups make no such promise. (Accusations that Border Patrol agents watch Humane Borders water tanks actually lead to an argument in one scene of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.)

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In my last post, I highlighted that an increasing number of arrests in the Rio Grande Valley reflects the growing popularity of Texas as a land route across the U.S.-Mexican border. In researching this post about Humane Borders, I learned that Reverend Hoover has been aware for several years of the rising number of migrant deaths around Texas. In 2012, he relocated to Fort Worth along with his humanitarian vision.

My day of giving water to migrants is long gone but the organization’s mission continues.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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