Group Helps Get Water to Immigrants
Phoenix volunteers join Tucson
Daniel González, The Arizona Republic, Feb. 16
A small but growing group of Phoenix church volunteers has joined a Tucson-based effort to prevent migrant deaths at the border by placing water stations in the desert near trails used by undocumented immigrants to enter the United States illegally.
With the “death season” approaching, the non-profit group Humane Borders Inc. has been trying to recruit more volunteers from Phoenix to help fill water stations in a race to double the number of water stations along the border to 90 from 45 by May 1.
That’s when temperatures typically reach 100 degrees and migrant deaths begin climbing, said the Rev. Robin Hoover, a Disciples of Christ minister and founder of Humane Borders Inc.
“Where there are water stations, the number of deaths is significantly lower,” said the Rev. Gene Lefebvre, an assistant minister at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in north Phoenix who organized the Phoenix group, which started with two volunteers and now numbers about 50.
Although group members believe their work saves lives, the U.S. Border Patrol does not support it.
“We feel it gives (migrants) a false sense of security,” said Charles Griffin, a Border Patrol agent from the Tucson Sector.
Anti-immigrant groups that believe placing water stations in the desert only encourages more illegal immigration condemn the group’s work.
“I think it’s really short-sighted,” said Kathy McKee, state director of Protect Arizona Now, which is trying to get an initiative on the Nov. 3 ballot ensuring that undocumented immigrants cannot vote or receive public assistance. “They think they are being humane, but they are not. Not only are they aiding and abetting criminal activity, they are part of the system that encourages people to come here illegally.”
Griffin said the Border Patrol does not consider placing water stations along the border as criminal activity but cautioned that anyone who “furthers an entrance” could be prosecuted.
“We understand the humanitarian effort,” Griffin said.
Tucson-based Humane Borders Inc. began placing water stations along the border in March 2001 in response to the growing number of migrant deaths in the southern Arizona desert. A record 205 undocumented immigrants died in fiscal 2003, most of them of exposure. So far, nine migrants have died since Oct. 1.
In October, Humane Borders in Tucson gave the Phoenix group a Silverado flatbed pickup truck equipped with a 350-gallon water tank. Humane Borders receives funding from such church groups as the United Church of Christ Southwest Conference, which has donated $10,000 to the organization over the past two years.
With the cooperation from national park rangers, the Phoenix group has been using the pickup to fill two water stations every other week in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a remote area along the Mexican border in southwestern Arizona frequently used by undocumented immigrants trying to elude the Border Patrol.
The Phoenix group will be responsible for filling four additional water stations near Ajo a few miles north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument from May 1 to Oct. 1, when the majority of migrant deaths occur, said Liana Rowe, who oversees the Phoenix Humane Borders group.
Rowe and other Humane Border volunteers reject the contention that providing water to undocumented immigrants trekking through the desert encourages illegal immigration.
“The people are crossing because they have no other means of feeding their families. It’s an act of desperation. Nobody is coming across because we stuck a water tank out there,” Rowe said.
Rowe, a member of Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, is studying to be a minister. She said she was prompted to assist with the water-station effort because of her Christian beliefs and because of a connection she feels between the immigrants crossing the border from Mexico and her own ancestors who came to the United States from Italy.
“The things that are driving these people off their lands are the very same things that drove the Italians off their lands at the turn of the century,” Rowe said.