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Water In The Desert: Notes From The Border

Water in the Desert: Notes from the Border

Ken Huse

Sometime in 2012, during the early years of the Syrian civil war, I began to feel troubled by the plight of  desert migrants — people who were forced to walk away from all things familiar, leaving community connections and personal possessions behind.  Some time later, I learned that between October 1999 and December 2018, 3,339 migrant deaths have been reported in the Tucson, Arizona border sector alone. Not in Syria, but in our own country. I felt it was time to take some action.

On the web I found several migrant-oriented organizations that offered opportunities to volunteer. Humane Borders has been in existence for nearly 20 years. They’re “motivated by faith and the universal need for kindness” and “maintain a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert [south of Tucson and elsewhere] on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey on foot.”

Rebecca Fowler, a scholar of humanitarian movements in the Southwestern desert, became my guide. She quickly found several days within my time frame where I could accompany members of the Humane Borders team on their water barrel inspection routes. Without further ado, I booked a flight from my home city of Juneau, Alaska, to Tucson.

Several weeks later, I was at the regular Wednesday meeting at Humane Borders in Arizona. At 7 am the subsequent Monday, I met the Rev. John Hoelter and his wife Dianne, both long-time volunteers. John is a retired hospital chaplain and board member at Humane Borders. That day, with Dianne at the wheel, we took a crew cab flatbed truck carrying a 300-gallon water tank and pump on a roughly 125-mile trip south. Our destination was a small town, located in an amazingly beautiful stretch of Sonoran Desert covering the Altar Valley, called Sasabe.

Sasabe sits astride the border on a two-lane road, Highway 286. Our mission for the day was to transfer the water we carried to Grupos Beta, a Mexican government organization charged with helping migrants transiting through the country, though suspected of gathering information and collaborating with American and Mexican intelligence as well. We got through the Mexican border inspection with a wave from an agent busy on his cellphone conversation. The main concern at the entry to Mexico, I’d been told, was stopping gun smugglers.

During the previous week’s meeting at Humane Borders, I heard mention of another humanitarian organization called Samaritans, based out of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, where the sanctuary movement started in 1980s. (See They carry water, food, and medical supplies on routes where migrants have been known to travel. Their hiking trips can take up an entire day and happen at all times of the year.

At 7 am on a Thursday, I arrived to meet with Gail Kocourek, an energetic, knowledgeable, and long-standing volunteer with the Samaritans. She’d been a community outreach specialist in the Bay Area but now spends her time in the back country around the Arizona border looking for stranded migrants and asylum seekers.

Gail shared that over the previous two months she encountered approximately 40 asylum seekers. Some were sick and in need of help. The migrants travel almost exclusively by night, and on the least hospitable routes, to avoid the heavy Border Patrol presence. When they’re visible during the day, they almost always are in great distress. Hundreds die in the desert from dehydration each year – the danger is real.

Empty water jugs and food containers in areas the Samaritans know as migrant hotspots show testify to recent traffic.

On my three days spent with Humane Borders, we filled the large Grupos Beta water tank in Sasabe, and inspected or serviced 10 location, each with its own plastic 55-gallon water barrel and Humane Borders flag atop a tall metal pole. On the Samaritan trip, in two strategic locations, we left four, 1-gallon jugs total.

After my last trip with Humane Borders, I went to see Casa Alita, a migrant shelter owned by Pima County and operated by Catholic Community Services with help from a small army of volunteers, mostly women. (See I found it comforting to see the staff and all the volunteers being so kind, much like the kindness and dedication shown by the Humane Borders and Samaritan organizations. It’s truly a thing of beauty and helped me reestablish some hope.

By pulling apart or denying asylum to a desperate immigrant family or by making a criminal out of a migrant whose only intent is to work hard and send home a few American dollars, we abandon the values that make civilization honorable and worthy. Allowing fear of the few to establish policies for the whole of a given society is a mistake. This fear-based behavior supports an insidious, enormous, and profitable global caste system enforced by a far-reaching and powerful border security apparatus, where the poor end up trapped in their impoverished, often violent and climate-ravaged surroundings.  It’s time for us to do better.

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