Tucson Citizen
July 19, 2004

Helping illegal immigrants: Pro

How much aid is appropriate for migrants in distress in the desert?

Saving the life of a person dying of thirst should not be a political decision, it's a moral one.


Water saves lives in the desert, and water stations are just one way to get water to thirsty migrants. Many are the stories and legends (such as the legend of the Lady in Blue) of how water has saved lives in the desert. The vaqueros, the priests and the indigenous have known this for a very long time.

This is one more story. The morning of June 25, two Humane Borders volunteers approached a water station west of Tucson and more than 50 miles north of the border. They saw two feet sticking out from behind a water tank.

They thought someone was sleeping. The feet belonged to an unconscious woman near death whose jaw was locked open. Insects were crawling on her face. She was carried or driven there by others, presumably smugglers. The woman from Chiapas, Mexico, about 20, was so dehydrated that she has had to undergo hemodialysis at University Medical Center at taxpayer expense. Federal privacy rules prevent us from finding out much of her story or from helping her with simple, human things like a familiar face to see or a hand to hold.

The stories of life-saving encounters are increasing for a reason. Failed U.S. border policies intentionally push migrants into the deserts and create the problems we experience in southern Arizona.

People call us frequently to tell us they place water on their properties to keep migrants alive. The Samaritans and No More Deaths volunteers and other humanitarian and activist groups also place water in the deserts. Similar efforts are made in California, especially through Water Stations Inc. Well into our fourth year of work, we know that water saves lives and tax dollars.

Yet strong critics of the water stations abound, including the Border Patrol. They claim they have 2,000 agents and therefore 2,000 mobile water stations. As far as we know, only about one-fifth of them are on duty at any given time, and many of them are not on patrol. The deaths tell us there is still not enough water in the desert.

If the Border Patrol wants only their water in the desert, they'd better consult with the riparian folks, livestock producers and lease holders on state lands. There are other critics of our work. Citizens send e-mails to Humane Borders every week, using words like treason, traitor, anti-American and idiot. They tell us it's supposed to be hard to cross the border. Crossing the desert is not only hard, it's deadly. During monsoon season, we regularly find jugs filled with urine, mud and ripe pond moss. Those beverages send folks to the ER.

In the big picture, immigration is, of course, a federal issue. But there is no good reason the citizens of southern Arizona should have to bear all of the costs or suffer all of the tragedy. One reason we continue to bear the costs is because of fear. People are afraid of the Department of Homeland Security and increasingly afraid of the State of Arizona as it passes new legislation to expand its authority to prosecute people related to this inexorable migration.

A clear, bright, prosecutorial line needs to be drawn in the desert sand so all the citizens can become humanitarians. What can and cannot be done to help migrants crossing the desert? No one will supply a consistent answer. Are southern Arizonans going to be forced by Washington bureaucrats to condemn migrants to die because someone in D.C. thinks the desert should be a deterrence to a very low-level offense, all in the name of national security? Migrant children stuffed in cars are not national security issues. Their presence and their deaths go to our moral fiber.

Elected officials from the governor on down need to clearly state what the Border Patrol has said publicly on many occasions: It is OK to give food, water or first aid to another human being. It is not necessary for citizens to call authorities if they suspect the person receiving help is a foreign national. Doing so actually could jeopardize the caller's life.

For us, the understood bright line in the sand is migrant transportation. Agents may yell at folks for doing other things, but this is what the feds will prosecute. That has not always been understood. If a U.S. citizen transports a migrant in the furtherance of entry into the United States, that act can be prosecuted severely: huge fines, prison time, vehicle confiscation.

In the case of our two volunteers, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter and ground transportation were summoned to save the Guatemalan woman's life. She was transported by agents. Had our volunteers transported the woman, our protocol states that they would have called the hospital, the Border Patrol and the federal land manager in question before or during the emergency medical transporting.

They would not have been guilty, though they might have spent a lot of time talking to agents about this. Fortunately, our volunteers have had to do this only a couple of times in four years. It seems, then, that drawing the line at transportation is the viable bright line in the sand for citizens.

We call upon the many authorities of the State of Arizona in their many jurisdictions to inform the people of Arizona that it is a good thing for them to save lives and dollars by providing humanitarian assistance to people crossing the desert. No one is served by continuing to engender fear that is contrary to the hospitable nature of the people of southern Arizona. You are welcome to support or volunteer with Humane Borders.

The Rev. Robin Hoover, Ph.D., is the pastor of First Christian Church and president of Humane Borders Inc.