A Theology of Water: Humane Borders and the Reverend Robin Hoover
A Theology of Water: Humane Borders and the Reverend Robin Hoover
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines one of Tucson's most prominent faith-based migrant aid organizations, Humane Borders, which provides passive humanitarian assistance to migrants by maintaining water stations in strategic locations in the desert where migrants die in largest numbers. The chapter looks at the history of the organization, its mission, challenges, successes, and the group's founder, the Reverend Robin Hoover. Humane Borders is a compelling “migrant ministry,” which works within the boundaries of federal law while also promoting its vision of compassion and hospitality for migrants, based on many of the biblical narratives addressed in chapter two.
The white 4×4 driven by Doug Ruopp, a volunteer for Humane Borders, has come to a halt somewhere past Three Points in the valley below Baboquivari Peak. Ruopp has driven miles down dusty dirt roads, weaving around voracious potholes, past the ranches that hug the Tohono O’odham Reservation.1 Atop the truck are several blue plastic barrels. Once these barrels were used to deliver the sweetener for Coca-Cola. Now they are filled with water, a precious commodity here in the desert, especially for those who have walked for days through this unforgiving landscape and who have run out of it.
Ruopp hops out of the truck and begins examining the dry mangled brush that surround two more blue barrels, these ones on the desert floor. A blue flag flaps in the wind thirty feet above the barrels. The flag is a signal to migrants that there is a Humane Borders water station here. “Hola amigos, amigas,” Ruopp calls out. “No tengan miedo. No somos la patrulla. Somos amigos. Queremos ayudar. ¡Tenemos agua!” (“Hi friends. Don’t be afraid. We are not the Border Patrol. We are friends. We want to help. We have water!”) Ruopp checks around the barrels for human tracks, which he finds. It rained the night before, and hence, the tracks are fresh. Nearby is a backpack in the sand, a lone sneaker, several empty water bottles, and a sweatshirt dangling from a mesquite tree. Although no one emerges from the brush, there are clear traces of lives that have passed through here within the past few hours. There is also a bottle in the sand that is full. Ruopp bends down to pick up the full bottle. He unscrews the cap and sniffs the contents. “Urine,” he says.
“Urine?” I ask.
As horrible as it seems, this is the sort of moment that makes Ruopp and other Humane Borders volunteers feel like their hard work has paid off. “It's good to know that whoever left this bottle here got a good drink of water from one of our barrels,” he says.
The mission of Humane Borders is just that: to provide water for thirsty migrants who might otherwise perish of dehydration. The water station just described is only one of nearly a hundred others like it. They are scattered throughout southern Arizona in some of the most desolate outposts of the Sonoran desert. Most are not far from heavily traveled migrant trails. The blue flag that soars thirty feet into the air alerts migrants of water from miles away.
Keeping these tanks up and running is no easy business. “The politics of water stations is complex,” says the Reverend Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders. “There are permits, trucks, insurance, equipment, maintenance, media, vandalism, donors, on and on.”2 The cost of maintaining one typical water station alone (two tanks, one flag) for one year is $1,500. All this money comes from donations. That is not to mention the cost of gasoline (some volunteers must travel up to four hours to reach a water station) and the maintenance of the trucks, which take some hard beatings on a good day.
The story of how Humane Borders came to be is one, in part, of serendipity and vision. When the Reverend Robin Hoover and his wife, Sue Anne Goodman, a university fund-raiser, moved to Tucson from Texas, they had little idea what was in store for them. Hoover had come to Tucson to take over the pastorate of First Christian Church. As Ken Ellingwood writes:
Hoover now had to get to know an unfamiliar congregation—and introduce himself to his new 350-member flock—in a state where he had never lived before. Even for a man of his considerable energy, the last thing he had come seeking in Arizona was a crusade to add to his busy life. It didn’t take long, though, for the crusade to find him.3
As it turned out, that crusade would be one of water. The idea for the mission came to Hoover in the summer of 2000, while he was still busy settling into his new life as pastor of the First Christian Church on Tucson's Speedway Boulevard. It came in response to the sudden increase in migrant deaths that occurred over that blistering summer. Until then, the number of migrant deaths in Arizona, while on the increase, was still not as alarming as that summer, when stories of dead migrants hit the news almost daily.
(p.49) This sudden trend of desert deaths shows up alarmingly on graphs like the one from the “Humane Borders fact sheet.” The fact sheet shows that in 1994 there were only two recorded deaths and none in 1995. But since 1995, there has been a steady increase in fatalities: twelve in 1996, thirteen in 1997, seventeen in 1998, twenty-one in 1999, and forty-four in 2000, the year Hoover arrived in Tucson.4 From there, things grew even grimmer: 78 in 2001, 163 in 2002, 190 in 2003, 221 in 2004, and a high of 279 in 2005.
The majority of migrant deaths in Arizona were from lack of water. These people were migrants like Yolanda Gonzalez, who perished in the desert after giving her baby her last sip of water. It was Gonzalez's death that fueled the founding of Humane Borders. In response to her death and others like it, clergy members from several of Tucson's religious communities came together to discuss the crisis and to brainstorm possible ways of addressing it. On June 11, 2000, Pentecost Sunday, Hoover and eighty-five other religiously inspired folk met at the Pima Friends meeting house in Tucson. At that meeting, they asked two central questions: “First, how can we respond with compassion to the migrants who are risking their lives crossing the deserts along the U.S.-Mexican border? Second, how can we work to change the U.S. immigration policies that place these persons at risk in the desert?”5
The idea that struck Hoover as the most pragmatic and humanitarian came from the example of a California man named John Hunter. Hunter, during that same deadly summer of 2000, “launched his own one-man mercy campaign by installing water stations in the desert stretches of Imperial County.”6 Hunter “was no weak-kneed liberal, either.… But as he watched the news about migrants dying in southern California's deserts, Hunter decided to act. This had nothing to do with whether the country's immigration policy should be tightened or loosened, he reasoned. This was a more fundamental matter. If lives are being lost in the desert, then you must go to the desert to save them.”7
Hunter began leaving large jugs of water out in bunches and placing blue banners atop thirty-foot poles. Hoover found Hunter's example an effective response to the crisis. He invited Hunter to talk to his growing coalition about his “water effort” in the hope that they might be able to undertake a similar project. As Hoover saw it, “placing drinking water along well-traveled migrant corridors in the desert was an act with utilitarian and symbolic value. On a religious level, it displayed the Judeo-Christian belief in compassion and tolerance, the same kind shown in the biblical parable of the good Samaritan and elsewhere in exhortations of Jesus: ‘For whosoever shall give you a cup of water in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose the reward.’ ”8
(p.50) Hoover's plan, however, was much more complicated than Hunter's. He envisioned not just clusters of water jugs but large tanks, set up in strategic locations based on the places where migrants were dying most frequently. He knew many of these tanks would have to be in very remote locations, and this would require a sophisticated network of trucks and tanks, and a hefty sum of money (to be raised through drives and donations). Moreover, Hoover wanted to undertake this “migrant ministry” with full legal approval from the appropriate federal agencies. Although deeply inspired by his Sanctuary predecessors, Hoover wanted to make sure that whatever his group did was done within “the law of the land.” He wanted to find a way to both act with the compassion and hospitality that his faith required of him and also to respect the law. As Hoover says, “Humane Borders currently provides passive humanitarian assistance by erecting and maintaining water stations in remote, strategic desert areas on both sides of the border where most migrants travel and where, unfortunately, most migrants die.”9 The use of the word “passive” is key, since it emphasizes Humane Border's non-combative approach.
Choosing to work within the confines of the law, however, was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, in cooperating with Border Patrol, Hoover was able to acquire vital statistics from them. The statistics showed where clusters of migrants were dying and provided Hoover with an idea of where to begin putting out water stations. Not only did the Border Patrol aid him in identifying the most perilous migrant corridors, but equally as important, they granted him permits so that he could place water stations on federal land. It was an uneasy but necessary alliance in Hoover's eyes.
Still, in public, Hoover never held back in decrying what he deemed the “immoral” strategies of the Border Patrol. He believed, in no uncertain terms, that border enforcement policy was to blame for the spike in migrant deaths. The statistics proved it, he said. Before 1994, before the border crackdown, migrants were dying only rarely. “The large, expensive deployment of personnel, technologies, and strategies have resulted in record numbers of migrant deaths,” Hoover believed. “Since 1994, migrants have been intentionally pushed into the open desert as a result of consciously chosen public policy. A number of related U.S. border policies have caused exponentially rising death rates and untold human suffering among those seeking a better life and, in many cases, mere survival.… Through our eyes, we conclude that borders, border policies, and border law enforcement should not kill people, freeze them, shoot them, run over them in high speed pursuits, dehydrate them, confine them, or drive them into medical distress. Yet through informed eyes, we see that the policies of the United States have done just this for far too many years.”10
(p.51) In both criticizing U.S. border policies and in promoting more humane ones, Hoover drew upon the Judeo-Christian tradition of hospitality. As its motto, Humane Borders adopted the quote from Isaiah 49:10: “They shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water guide them.”11 This motto pointed to the biblically inspired nature of the group's mission. As Reverend Hoover said, “Humane Borders is a strategic faith response to the rising numbers of migrant deaths. Both strategy and faith were present in the founding of Humane Borders, the writing of the mission statement, the early organization of the corporation, and in the unfolding history since those days.”12
In many ways, there was nobody better suited to deal with the crisis in the desert than Hoover himself. He had spent the previous decade thinking about the connections between religion and public policy and the realm of political theology. In particular, he had dedicated his Ph.D. dissertation to studying the politics of faith-based groups working in immigration policy. Before that, he had earned his Master's of Divinity degree from Brite Divinity School, focusing on social ethics, and is currently writing a book, with the working titled, Humane Borders: The Moral Argument for Policy Reform.
Hoover calls himself a “a postmodern liberal critic” and can throw around ideas, in his sonorous Texan drawl, in a cogent and charismatic manner, concerning just about anything. He is full of quips and has no shortage of opinions. Best of all, he will usually keep you laughing as he tosses out jokes like darts. The humor is refreshing, especially since so many of the stories he tells—stories of migrant deaths—can be so chilling.
He calls his work part of “the migrant ministry business,” and roots his inspiration in the Christian story. As he says, “What happens to the weeping, sorrowful, hurting, marginalized, and dying is the ultimate test of a social system, be it religious, governmental, or cultural. As a Christian, I use the Christian language of ‘the least of these.’ ”13 The simple act of providing water to migrants is, for Hoover, not only a moral endeavor but also an act of faith and a witness to the life, work, and message of Christ. “Those who work on immigration issues from the faith perspective,” writes Hoover, “turn often to Matthew 25, which is a judgment of the nations for not taking care of the most basic need (material and spiritual) of the ‘least of these.’ The migrants all fit the profile of those who are far too often without food, water, clothes, welcome, healthcare, or visitation.”14
Humane Borders, motivated by faith, will work to create a just and humane border environment. Members will respond with humanitarian assistance to those who are risking their lives and safety crossing the United States border with Mexico. We encourage the creation of public policies toward a humane, non-militarized border with legalized work opportunities for migrants in the U.S. and legitimate economic opportunities in migrants’ countries of origin. We welcome all persons of good faith.15
The aim of the platform was twofold. Most immediately, Humane Borders would respond with humanitarian assistance by placing water tanks in the desert. Second, the group would work to lobby for effective and humane immigration reform at the national level. In undertaking the project, the group came up with a logo: the North Star and the seven stars of the Big Dipper filled with water. It is meant to incorporate the “drinking gourd” from the abolitionist movement, symbolizing Humane Borders’ commitment to humanitarian assistance.
With their logo, mission statement, and biblical inspiration, Humane Borders deployed its first water station in November 2000. Within just a few years, the organization has progressed from leaving out a few of those blue tanks of water here and there to having nearly one hundred spaced throughout the desert. In the group's January–March 2009 newsletter, Desert Fountain, Hoover wrote:
We’re already setting records this fiscal year for recovering human remains from the desert. Approximately 25—mostly skeletonized—remains were discovered in December and January alone.… Fortunately, our members have risen to the needs of this organization repeatedly, and we continue to receive more and more water station locations. Before the calendar year 2009 ends, I’m predicting we will have 115 water stations. Some of these are in incredibly remote locations but very strategic sites as determined by our mapping technologies.16
To get each of those water stations up and running is no small thing. As Hoover says, many of the water stations are put up in “incredibly remote locations.” To reach these locations requires confronting the physical challenges of the terrain—the mountains, the rough roads, the lonesome torrid outposts of the Sonoran desert. For this reason, every truck is equipped with food packs, first aid kits, satellite telephones, and global positioning systems (GPS), in case volunteers run into trouble or encounter migrants in distress.
Even more challenging are the negotiations that must take place to get permission to put up every station. In each case, Humane Borders works closely, creatively, and persuasively with ranchers, landowners, and federal groups to secure permits. Many of the stations are placed on state and (p.53) federal land (only 17.5 percent of Arizona land is privately owned).17 As a result, Hoover and his organization must seek the proper permits from the right agencies. Often, there is a lot of wrangling. Hoover must prove the necessity for setting up a water station at a given spot. He must go into talks with federal officials armed with his maps that show where migrants are dying, and he must convince them that it is in everyone's best interest to have water tanks available for migrants in a certain location.
This last point cannot be glossed over. It is not just the migrant who suffers from the absence of water in the desert, but it is the public as well. As Hoover says, “millions of dollars will be expended by county governments in southern Arizona to re-hydrate, dialyze, and rehabilitate many migrants brought in from the desert. These funds are not reimbursed by the federal government.”18 As a result of the life-saving care that Tucson medical facilities have been providing to sick migrants in recent years, such facilities are running deficits so large that some are talking of closing their doors. Water stations, Hoover argues, are cost-effective responses that keep migrants out of the hospitals and off the medical examiner's table.
If Humane Borders is not wrangling for permission from federal officials, they are doing so with individual citizens (most often ranchers), asking to place stations on their land. This process can be no less difficult. While some ranchers give swift approval, may others give a categorical, “No.” Not only do such ranchers refuse to have water tanks placed on their land but they also vociferously oppose the “water effort.” In large part, their refusal stems from the outrage they feel over the deleterious effects human migration patterns are having on their land. Hoover is the first to agree that ranchers have a right to complain: their fences are cut by migrants and coyotes; their water systems are disturbed; migrant trash costs money to clean up, and even worse, the trash can be lethal to livestock that eat it; bundles of illicit drugs are often hidden or found on ranchers’ lands; theft or break-ins are not uncommon.
Another obstacle to the “water effort” in recent years has come from the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Nation's reservation sees a staggering number of migrant deaths each year. In recent years, the Nation has seen close to half the number of deaths that occur in Arizona. Despite these deaths, however, the Tohono O’odham tribal government has refused to allow any Humane Borders’ water tanks to be placed on its land. The reasons for this denial reflect the complicated relations between the Tohono O’odham people and immigration and border matters. Many tribal members live in fear of migrants and smugglers. The vast number of migrants passing through O’odham lands mean no harm, but as migration patterns have shifted to their territory, these Native Americans have experienced more incidents of theft on tribal lands. Tribal members have also been (p.54) affected by human and drug smuggling operations. Since average yearly income for many of the registered 28,000 O’odham is near or below poverty levels, some members have become involved in smuggling. It is quick and easy money. “You see some people driving around the Nation in fancy cars,” one tribal member told me, “and you know they have no visible means to pay for such things. They’re involved in smuggling. There may not be a lot of O’odham involved in the business, but it is more than it ever was in the past. It makes everyone more wary of the whole immigration thing.”
Moreover, as more migrants began traveling through O’odham land, more Border Patrol agents were deployed to the reservation. Since part of this land actually extends into Mexico (approximately 1,500 members live on Mexican O’odham land), the Nation was literally cut in half with the construction of fencing in certain places. “The Border Crossed Us,” is a common refrain there. Some members, such as Ofelia Rivas, declare the Border Patrol to be an “occupying army.” Others see the need for the Border Patrol to manage the chaos but lament the fact that the Nation is so caught in the middle. These factors, to name only a few, have contributed to the Nation's unwillingness to cooperate with Humane Borders. This has greatly disheartened Hoover's organization over the years. There are some tribal members, such as Mike Wilson, who have publicly decried the Nation's stance concerning the water effort. Wilson began leaving jugs of water on reservation land anyway, even though he was forbidden to do so in certain districts by tribal government. “I understand people's fears,” Wilson told me. “I understand their frustration. Are migrants breaking the law by entering illegally? Sure, but there is a higher moral law. It requires me to help my brother and sister in need. It requires me to put out water.”19
Each Humane Borders water tank that goes up is cause for the organization to celebrate. An even greater cause of joy for volunteers is the proven success that such water tanks have had. Through the use of maps, Hoover's organization can demonstrate that where there are water stations, there are significantly fewer migrant deaths in that area. They have the maps from before the stations were erected, and the maps from after. The results fall clearly in Humane Borders’ favor. Such success has allowed the organization to argue for the need for further stations. As Hoover wrote, “We know the water tanks are effective because we can walk into church shelters in Nogales, into churches housing migrants, and other places and ask, ‘How many of you have gotten water from a tank beneath a blue flag?’ We get lots of yes responses along with gratitude and blessings.”20 Sometimes volunteers find notes from migrants left near a water tank, notes like the one found on September 5, 2009, at a tank in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which read: “God bless you. You saved my life. Gracias. An imigrant [sic] looking for his American dream.”21
(p.55) Still, with all its successes, Humane Borders is not without its enemies. There are those who believe that “providing water to people who were knowingly entering the United States illegally was at best ‘a feel-good service.’ At worst, it was anti-American.”22 Such factions, including some ranchers and members of civil patrol groups, have accused Humane Borders of being misguided and naïve: Didn’t the organization ever stop to think that leaving water out in the desert would give undocumented migrants more incentive to try to cross? Or did they understand that not all the people taking water were decent folks, that some were criminals and drug smugglers? At the core, providing such water rewarded illegal behavior, certain people argued. But Hoover and his volunteer corps always argued back: those who were crossing were going to do it anyway, with or without water. Who in his or her right mind, Hoover retorted, wanted to leave country and family behind, risk rape and robbery, dehydration or hyperthermia imprisonment and death? By the time people decide to cross, there was little convincing them to reconsider. Whether or not there were some barrels of water sitting out in the desert had no bearing on someone who was desperate enough to undertake the perilous journey in the first place. “Contrary to what some people may fear, providing water in the desert will not increase undocumented migration,” says the Humane Borders fact sheet. “People do not cross the border to obtain water; they cross the border for jobs.”23
In fact, Humane Borders has created maps and posters to warn migrants about the dangers of crossing and to try to dissuade them. These posters and maps are placed in shelters and churches along the border in Mexico. The posters read in emphatic lettering: ¡No vaya Ud! ¡No hay suficiente agua! ¡No vale la pena! ¡No arriesga su vida! ¡Puede Ud morir! (Don’t go! There is not enough water! It's not worth it! Don’t risk your life! You can die!). In smaller lettering, and in Spanish, one can read additional advisory information: “Crossing the border walking through the desert is dangerous and can end in death; if you decide to cross the border by foot be well prepared.” Such posters also advise migrants not to cross the desert between May and August, when temperatures are dangerously high; to bring identifying documents; to carry enough water and food; to know and trust the people they are crossing with; and to know the distances they will walk on foot before beginning.
This last point, concerning the reality of distances facing migrants, is emphasized in the map that accompanies the warnings. “Sometimes, migrants have no idea how long they must walk to get where they want to go,” the Reverend Hoover told me. “I’ve seen women in high heels trying to cross. They think Tucson is just a short walk from Nogales; or that Phoenix is just an afternoon of walking.”24 But what the map shows is just how far (p.56) someone (in good health) can walk from Nogales in one day, two days, three days, and more. As shown, after three days of walking (without getting lost, sick, or being abandoned by a coyote), a person is barely halfway to Tucson.
As I was driving through the desert with Doug Ruopp that warm Sunday in January, he pointed to the line of mountains demarcating Tohono O’odham land and said, “If only migrants could stand on top of mountains like that and look out in all directions, I think they would not try to cross. When they realized that they would have to walk all that way, endless miles of the same desert landscape, I think they would give up and go home.” This is what the map tries to impart: the immensity and monotony of the landscape, and the all-too-real danger, although, as Hoover believes, in all likelihood such information dissuades very few.
While saving lives by providing water is the priority of Humane Borders, the organization also works on more long-term problem solving. Migrant deaths, the organization believes, are connected to the absence of effective, humane, and realistic immigration policies. During its weekly meetings at the First Christian Church on Wednesday nights, the group brainstorms ways to try to lobby for immigration reform at the national level. As Hoover says, the deaths in the desert are a symptom of the larger problem. That problem comes from the U.S. government's inability to envision, compromise on, and enact proper immigration reform. In short, Hoover advocates national immigration reform that includes some form of amnesty for those millions of undocumented immigrants already here, a viable guest worker program going forward, and a closer look at how the effects of globalization are creating such patterns of migration. He writes:
As a matter of justice the first priority is to extend a legal status to those who are living in the United States of America without the basic legal recognition or protection. Rational people can disagree as to what that status would be, whether it would lead to citizenship, and for what period of time.… The second thing is to provide legal work opportunities for those who wish to work in the U.S. Again, rational people can have significant differences on how this gets accomplished, but the organized work opportunities for up to 750,000 persons a year should be made available to foreign nationals who are not participating in other programs. Visas would go directly to the migrants to seek employment in certain sectors of the U.S. economy at will. Migrants could organize, have their families follow them, and be able to move from employer to employer at will to avoid Bracero-style working conditions.… Finally, there should be concerted efforts to work cooperatively between nations to provide for economic development in the migrants’ countries of origin. Globalization is here to stay. Many of the unjust effects occur in the most marginalized, sending communities and must be addressed by all nations participating in the new realities of inter-dependent political economies.25
(p.57) It is no surprise that, all along, Hoover has had his fill of opponents, not just in Arizona but all across the nation. Recent polls suggest that more than half of Americans do not support the idea of amnesty nor a guest worker program. Nonetheless, Hoover believes that until such immigration reform occurs, the deaths in the desert will continue. Meanwhile, trying to wall off the border is not a humane solution, he asserts. It will only continue to force migrants to take increasingly drastic measures to enter the United States.
This does not mean, Hoover emphasizes, that the United States should have open or porous borders. As he often says, “Our organization is called Humane Borders, not open borders, or no borders, or something else like that.”26 Nations should have the right to control their borders and monitor who comes and goes. It is imperative for national safety. But without proper immigration reform, migrants will continue to evade ports of entry, and the death toll will mount. Until that day comes, Hoover believes that he and his organization have to come up with the best temporary solution: water.
“All this work,” Hoover laments, “is just a Band-Aid over the problem.”27 He does not see any substantive change coming anytime soon. The water is just “an interim moral response,” he says, as well as a way to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.28 Nonetheless, Hoover talks a lot about hope. He is in “the hope business” as he calls it. “Hope is the greatest political force we have,” Hoover said to me with a wistful shrug of his shoulders the last time we met in his office.
What makes Robin Hoover particularly admirable is his ability to collaborate extensively with individuals, groups, and agencies with whom he disagrees. As he says:
We have pointed to death in the desert, declared that what is happening there is immoral, and invited anyone with warrant and wisdom on this issue to come to the table,…such as the Border Patrol, federal land managers, health care providers, elected officials, and others, to discern viable means of changing what we see. At that table…, we have chosen to speak with all interested parties in a non-adversarial way. Each time a decision has been taken and actions undertaken, everything Humane Borders officers and volunteers have done has been public, open, transparent, and within the bounds of law.29
Hoover may not agree with all aspects of the law. He may, in fact, vehemently disagree. But he believes in respecting and trying to work within its bounds.
For all of his hard work—his vision, resolve, patience, and willingness to compromise—the Reverend Hoover was awarded (among other honors) Mexico's most prestigious human rights awards, given to him by Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón. In 2010, roughly ten years after launching (p.58) Humane Borders, Hoover stepped down as president of the organization, both to complete his book and to undertake new “migrant ministries.” His most recent migrant safety initiative is called Project Find Me! (Proyecto Rescátame!). The project's aim is to provide Personal Location Beacons to groups of migrants crossing southern Arizona. The beacon uses GPS technology to send emergency signals, activated by migrants in distress in the desert. Through satellite systems, these beacons alert Search and Rescue teams to migrants’ calls for help.30
For as long as people have been migrating, they have done so across deserts. It is no surprise that so many biblical stories tell of great transformations in the desert: the voice of God is heard; angels appear; Satan tempts men with all the world; sons are sacrificed, or nearly so; covenants are made and broken; idols are fashioned and smashed. It is a place of extremes, a perilous expanse that over the centuries has tested the faith and endurance of many, especially migrants.
In many biblical chronicles of forced journeys across the desert, water becomes a protagonist. Consider Exodus 17, when the Israelites are overcome with thirst in the wilderness. “Give us water to drink,” they demand of Moses who in turn cries out to the Lord, “What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”31 The Lord leads Moses to the rock at Horeb, which Moses strikes with his staff, producing a font of life-saving water. Or consider the story of Hagar and Ishmael cast out into the wilderness of Beer-sheba: after their skins of water run dry and the boy is on the verge of death by dehydration, Hagar throws her son under a bush, so as not to watch him die. As she weeps for her child, God speaks to her and leads her to a well of water; mother and child are restored.
These stories, while age-old, are in no way obsolete. They have been playing out in the southwest desert of the United States over the past decade. Rather than Hagar and Ishmael, it may be a mother like Yolanda Gonzalez and her infant baby. Rather than Moses, it may be a bricklayer from Michoacán, or a single mother from Tegucicalpa, heading north in search of a better life in another land. Rather than a spring at the rock at Horeb, it may just be a big blue water tank underneath a high blue flag.
This is why Robin Hoover and his cadre of volunteers do it. It is why they drive the hundreds of miles into the desert with barrels of water; why they negotiate tirelessly with their detractors; why they raise the money to keep the whole operation up and running. Because they know that a little bit of water can save so many lives.
There is a painting by Jean-François Millet entitled “Hagar and Ishmael.” It is a stark rendering of mother and child on the brink of death. In the foreground, Hagar lies on the barren yellow ground, clutching her forehead, the expression on her face one of horror and helplessness. Behind her lies her (p.59) son, listless, naked, the bones of his ribs protruding, his little arm draped over his face, eyes closed. Between them lies a red skin of water, empty and overturned. Aside from that, there is nothing else: a brutal monotony of yellow terrain. Millet has condensed the story of Hagar and Ishmael to its raw tragic core.
It is this core—this anguished mother and her dying son, without water in the desert—that Humane Borders picks up on. As long as there are mothers or sons, fathers or daughters, children or grandparents, dying in the desert of thirst, Humane Borders, inspired by the biblical injunction to care for the stranger, will keep sending out its trucks to the farthest, dustiest, driest corners of the Sonoran desert. (p.60)
9.Humane Borders, “Humane Borders Essays and Opinion Pieces.”
(1.) The Tohono O’odham reservation is the second largest Native American reservation in the United States (it is roughly the size of Connecticut). Due to its remoteness, many migrants try to pass through it on their way north. As a result, it is the place where a disproportionate number of migrant deaths have occurred in recent years. Mike Wilson is a tribal member who has four water stations of his own on O’odham land (he has named the water stations after the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John); in a recent phone interview he said that of the 253 migrants who died in southern Arizona during 2009–2010, 107 of those migrants were found on O’odham land (phone interview, April 8, 2011).
(2.) Robin Hoover, Desert Fountain Newsletter, July–September 2009.
(3.) Ken Ellingwood, Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), 137.
(6.) Ellingwood, Hard Line, 144.
(11.) The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 934 OT.
(12.) Humane Borders, “Humane Borders Essays and Opinion Pieces.”
(14.) Robin Hoover, Desert Fountain Newsletter, July–September 2009.
(16.) Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas; Desert Fountain Newsletter, January–March 2009.
(17.) According to the Arizona State Land Department annual report from 2009–2010, only 17.5 percent of Arizona land is privately owned. As for the rest, 12.7 percent is state owned, 42.2 percent is owned by the federal government, and the remaining 27.6 percent is in Indian trust. The status of land in Indian trust is complex. Technically, the federal government still holds legal title to the land, but for the exclusive benefit of an Indian tribe or Nation (see http://www.land.state.az.us/report/report2010_full.pdf, p. 19).
(18.) Humane Borders, “Humane Borders Essays and Opinion Pieces.”
(19.) Mike Wilson, phone interview with author, February 2011. In two recent interviews (April 2011), with Mike Wilson and John Fife, there was talk of the Nation reconsidering the idea of allowing Humane Borders to put water tanks on its land.
(20.) Hoover, Desert Fountain Newsletter, July–September 2009.
(22.) Ellingwood, Hard Line, 148.
(23.) Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas, “Humane Borders Fact Sheet,” January 2008.
(24.) The Reverend Robin Hoover, interview with the author, January 2009.
(25.) Humane Borders, “Humane Borders Essays and Opinion Pieces.”
(27.) The Reverend Robin Hoover, interview with the author, January 2009.
(28.) As part of their mission, Humane Borders has worked on attracting the attention of major media sources. At the Humane Borders headquarters there is a media room with filing cabinets filled with more than 1,500 articles featuring Humane Borders. Hoover believes that “getting the news out” about the crisis will raise awareness and help bring about change.
(29.) Humane Borders, “Humane Borders Essays and Opinion Pieces.”
(31.) The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 91 OT.