Fall 2003
Lost empires, forgotten kings
Unforgettable professors
Q & A with Eric Hyman
Taking death out of the equation
Alma Matters
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TCU Magazine Feature


Taking 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 workers.

By Rick Waters '95

It's 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 National Monument.

Dust devils 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 jokes.

Part preacher, 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.

"See 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.

Border officials "thought they could use the desert as a deterrent," Hoover says. "They're forcing people down death trails."

The desert 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.

While 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.

Then they 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."

Tucson activists 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.

In April 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.

Since then, 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.

Humane Borders 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 station.

However, 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.

"You guys are a godsend," says agent KC Wilcox at the north entrance to Organ Pipe. "Crossing the desert shouldn't be a death sentence."

Humane Borders 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.

In turn, Hoover vows not to aid migrants, other than filling up the water stations every week.

As Hoover 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.'

"Since 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 immigration equation."

If Hoover 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.

"This 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."

The border 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."

This summer 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.

"You're allowed to fill up here?" a volunteer asks from the back seat.

"Allowed?" Hoover says. "I'm invited."

For more information, visit www.humaneborders.org. Contact Robin Hoover at info@humaneborders.org. Comment on this story at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.