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Water stations for desert crossers

By Arthur H. Rotstein
Associated Press
Dec. 27, 2000

TUCSON - The number of migrants dying on the perilous journey across the border soared this year after the Border Patrol began steering them into remote, dangerous, desert terrain.

Heavy reinforcements of agents and new steel fences and powerful lights near official ports of entry have made the treacherous, unpopulated Arizona border the route of choice for smugglers.

There were 106 deaths through fiscal 2000, which ended Sept. 30 - 74 in the Tucson sector and 32 in the Yuma sector, jumping from 43 in 1999.

Now, a coalition of about a dozen churches has emerged with two goals: to provide humanitarian help for those migrants crossing the deserts, and to try to change U.S. immigration policy. Members of Humane Borders will provide blankets, coats, food, shelter during winter months and desert water stations in the summer.

It's similar to the church-based Sanctuary Movement of the early 1980s, whose leaders were prosecuted for illegally aiding Central Americans without papers who sought refuge from political persecution.

This time, the humanitarian organization aims to have the Border Patrol's blessing.

The group plans several hundred stations, each with a few sealed gallon jugs of water, placed about a quarter-mile apart at still-undetermined locations north of and parallel to the Mexican border. At least once a week, organization members - many of them church parishioners, will check and replenish the water.

The stations will be marked by blue flags on 30-foot-tall metal poles depicting the Big Dipper and the North Star, insignia of the historic underground railroad. In this instance, the dipper will be shown with water in it.

"This is a way to deploy passive humanitarian assistance," said Humane Borders' leader, the Rev. Robin Hoover of Tucson's First Christian Church.

Humane Borders and the Border Patrol share a concern about the water: They don't want to suggest to migrants that there will be ample supplies or no more risk in the desert, where temperatures routinely reach triple digits.

"We don't want to put anyone's life at risk because they misinterpret what we're doing. The water stations are not going to ensure that the risk is diminished in the desert at all," said the Rev. John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.

David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, is worried that the stations will become a magnet causing more problems.

"By placing them in the desert, there may be a perception among people coming into the country that that (lack of water) is not going to be a problem," Aguilar said.

The math is brutal: A person crossing the desert in warm weather requires as much as a gallon and a half of water an hour. The water needed by 10 or 15 migrants trying to walk 60 to 75 miles in the desert will greatly outweigh the amount available even with hundreds of stations, Aguilar suggested.

"I know their intent is not to create a bigger problem, and I support that, but indirectly I hope they do not create a bigger danger," Aguilar said.

Unlike the Sanctuary Movement, which was about protesting federal policies on Central America, Humane Borders is simply responding to a humanitarian crisis, Hoover said.

"INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and Border Patrol strategy is to force people into the desert, and that's a very deadly policy," Hoover said.

"We're not helping people evade the Border Patrol," added Fife, who co-founded the Sanctuary Movement and was among those convicted in 1986 of smuggling illegal immigrants from Central America.

"We're simply saying to migrants coming across, 'There are folks in the borderlands who are willing to continue the old tradition of providing hospitality for migrants moving across this border.' "

Aguilar said he has spoken to Hoover and Fife "specifically on these issues."

"They have left no doubt that their intent is humanitarian help," he added.

Border Patrol agents performed 1,300 desert rescues this year. Their mission is to enforce immigration laws humanely and compassionately and "to protect the lives of those who enter our country," Aguilar said.

"Well-meaning, law-abiding citizens providing lifesaving assistance to illegal immigrants are doing what the Border Patrol is doing to prevent tragedies," he said.

But going from there "to knowingly furthering the illegal entry of that person into the country is illegal," he said. Each case is different, and intent can become a factor when a vehicle or residence is involved, he added.