Reverend Robin Hoover is driving through the Arizona desert, pointing out narrow paths that appear in the dry grass every 50 yards or so. "There's one," he says. "There's another....This is a big one." Each trail runs north from Mexico, ending at isolated spots 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," says Hoover. "They're forcing people down death trails."
While other activists protested the border strategy, Hoover did something about it. Last year, a group he leads called Humane Borders began placing 60-gallon water tanks near well-traveled paths across southern Arizona. They took empty Coca-Cola syrup tanks, painted them blue, attached faucets, and wrote agua on the side. Then they put up a 30-foot flagpole next to each station, a blue flag attached to the top. On this Saturday morning in April, Hoover is refilling some of the 17 water stations from a 325-gallon tank on the back of a flatbed pickup.
"This is not rocket science," Hoover says with a laugh, "but it took a rocket scientist to teach us how to do it."
The effort evolved from an idea by John Hunter, a physicist who set out water jugs near the border in California. Activists in Tucson picked up on the idea in June 2000, when veterans of the sanctuary movement that sheltered migrants during the 1980s met to discuss the latest deaths along the border. Hoover, who serves as pastor of First Christian Church, agreed to lead Humane Borders.
Hoover is a bearded, fit man of 49 whose language alternates between the drawl-laden profanity of a construction worker (he built banks and schools in his native Texas) to the lofty jargon of a political scientist (he did his Ph.D. dissertation on religious nonprofits that assist migrants). Under his leadership, Humane Borders has grown to include 1,200 members.
In April 2001, Hoover 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, 14 Mexican migrants died in the refuge, and the group was quickly 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.
"Robin gets credit for making this effort significant in terms of the number of people saved," says the Reverend John Fife, a co-founder of the sanctuary movement, "and for being a very articulate voice in opposition to the current militarization of the border."
Humane Borders appears to be producing results. In the first year of operation, the group replenished 5,000 gallons of water, and it expects to provide even more this year. On April 2, 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.
To Hoover, such efforts simply continue an old tradition of "exercising hospitality in the desert. What we did was do it in a systematic, very public, visible way."