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Backstory: The canteen man of the US-Mexico border

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2007


The Rev. Robin Hoover bounces through the Arizona desert in a white truck that he has turned into his own mobile water-pumping station – a sort of canteen on wheels. The man of the cloth – on this day in Levi's 501 jeans, a khaki vest, and cap – maneuvers the vehicle through a tangle of mesquite, chollas, and prickly pear cactuses toward a blue flag in the distance.

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The pennant marks two 58-gallon water drums. They serve as an emergency drinking station for migrants making their trek northward from Mexico in what locals simply call "the migration" – the intensity of which is evident in the multitude of sneaker and boot prints in the sand.

After refilling the barrels, Mr. Hoover and a volunteer raise a new 30-foot pole and replace the tattered flag: The station is ready for more use. "Blue is the most unusual color in our desert and it's a symbol for water," says the clergyman.

Hoover is on a singular mission to save lives in the Arizona desert at a time of one of the fiercest debates over illegal immigration in modern history. That makes the tart-talking minister both reviled and revered.

To detractors, his effort to set up water stations represents a direct form of aid and encouragement to those crossing the border illegally, which may include terrorists. He has received numerous death threats as a result.

But supporters see him as a humanitarian who puts compassion over politics in his helping of those who often get overlooked in the antiseptic debate over immigration policy. Hoover sees himself as holding – often assertively – the "passionate center" on an issue with no lack of voices on the extremes.

"We don't like the migration. We'd just as soon people stayed home," he says. "But a collective decision has already been made: In the US, we give these people jobs, if they can get through the gauntlet. We want borders that don't kill people."


Hoover founded Humane Borders, an interfaith group based in Tucson that set up the network of watering stations in the spring of 2000, to stem the rising number of deaths in the desert. Already that year, some 20 people had perished. One incident hit him particularly hard: A young mother who had given her last water to her infant. The child survived. She didn't.

Even now, it's at least a 3-1/2 day walk from the border to the drums at Three Points. But to make it through the desert, a person on foot needs as many as eight gallons of water – far more than most migrants expect, especially those who are told by their "coyotes" (smugglers) that the walk is only 45 minutes.

The terrain here is so forbidding that US authorities, cracking down on illegal crossings in Texas and California in the 1990s, assumed that few would try it. But they do. In the peak season, thousands cross Arizona's "path of fire" each day. Since 1998, more than 3,100 people have died in the area.

Humane Borders, which now has 63 trained drivers and some 8,000 volunteers, services 84 water stations on both sides of the Arizona border. Its pump trucks make about 750 trips a year. The water tanks are recycled Coca-Cola syrup drums, painted to keep algae from blooming.

Last year, Humane Borders also began distributing maps in Mexico and Central America that show the location of water stations, US border patrol emergency beacons, as well as the sites of migrant deaths. "I want to tell them the information they need to save their lives," says Hoover. "Not to do so is abuse."

If the red dots marking deaths in the desert aren't a clear enough warning, the message – in bold, in caps, and in Spanish – on each map reads: "Don't do it. There's not enough water. Don't pay the penalty."