A fierce sun beats down on the First Christian Church parking lot, where the Rev. Robin Hoover is fielding calls on his cellphone. Beside him stands a fleet of white trucks belonging to Humane Borders, a group that maintains remote water stations for undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona's desert.
The temperature will top 100 degrees this day and the heat is keeping Mr. Hoover - president of Humane Borders - very busy. "We have teams out already this morning," he says, before answering another call. For these Samaritans, timing is key: Since October, 70 immigrants have died in the desert, including three over the Fourth of July weekend. Founded in the late '90s, Hoover's group erects its blue-flagged water stations in the most inhospitable stretches of southern Arizona where, each year, hundreds die of dehydration and exposure.
But these activities have made Humane Borders a lightning rod in the debate over immigration policy. Many of the water stations have been vandalized. And on July 8, several Arizona lawmakers announced a ballot initiative to restrict government funding for immigrant-assistance groups - such as the $25,000 Humane Borders received this year from Arizona's Pima County, where the Tucson area spans nearly 300 miles of desert.
The faith-based group, with its 30-plus member organizations, doesn't condone illegal immigration. But in the long term, Hoover and his colleagues push for liberalized immigration policies and for altering border-patrol strategies that drive immigrants away from heavily guarded border towns and further into raw desert. The goal, says Hoover, is to "take death out of the immigration equation."
Critics say the mid-'90s policies, aimed at deterring immigration by intensifying town patrols, have instead shifted migrant traffic, increased smuggling, and sent the death toll soaring. One poll found border crossers 14 times as likely to perish crossing the border today as in 1998.
State Rep. Randy Graf (R) is a leading sponsor of the ballot initiative that would reduce Humane Borders' funding. "I'm certainly not for people dying in the desert," says Mr. Graf. Instead, he hopes to pressure US and Mexican governments into halting illegal immigration. But the post-9/11 immigrant backlash deflated negotiations, and now, Graf says, neither side seems poised to act.
Other efforts directed against Humane Borders have been physical, such as the destruction of a water station on US Bureau of Land Management property near Tucson in May. "We have no idea who did it," says Hoover. "But there were a lot of fresh horseprints in the area, and I've never seen a migrant riding a horse yet."
At least four other water stations have been vandalized. In some instances, the entire station, including 65-gallon water barrels and 30-foot tall flags, have disappeared. To date, no one has been arrested.
Southeast of Tucson in Cochise County, "one site had to be taken down because it had been vandalized so many times," says Mr. Cooper, who also heads that county's Democratic Party.
Several factors complicate investigations of attacks, including the sites' remoteness and overlapping jurisdictions among local, state, and federal governments. For example, vandals struck the Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson in May, in an area administered by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). According to BLM Spokeswoman Lorraine Buck, the Ironwood water station is private property - leaving any criminal investigation to the US Attorney's office.
But Harriet Bernick, spokeswoman for the US Attorney for Arizona, says there's "no federal jurisdiction for damage of private property" on federal land, leaving jurisdiction to the state or county.
Adding to the tension are civilian militia groups that patrol Arizona's desert for migrants and drug smugglers. Activists have suggested that militias are behind the vandalism - either directly or simply by fanning anti-immigrant sentiment. Jennifer Allen is director of the Border Action Network, a Tucson group monitoring immigration policy and abuse and prodding government officials to "shift the climate and make it really clear that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated."
The militia organizations in question include the American Border Patrol, a civilian group that uses high-tech equipment to monitor the Arizona border. Director Glenn Spencer says he's "never heard of any of our members hitting" Humane Border sites. But he calls it "outrageous that the federal government allows these stations to be put up."
Regardless of who's vandalizing the sites, Hoover says one thing is certain: the water stations are saving lives. "Rational people can argue about change" in policy, he says. "But the current increase in the number of deaths each year is phenomenal. If we don't cap that off, it will make even the strongest supporter of the status quo angry about what's going on."