Backstory: The canteen man of the US-Mexico border

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.

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."

But critics say the existence of such a map sends another message – that there's help in the desert, so it's possible to cross. "We would not want to give anyone the impression that the desert is a safe place or that there are safe avenues through it," says Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

In Mexico, support for the Humane Borders agenda is unambiguous. When Mexico's National Human Rights Commission announced that it would nominate Hoover and two Mexican activists for their human rights award, new Mexican President Felipe Calderón offered to present the awards himself last month – and did.

But at home in Arizona, the politics of providing water and maps in the desert rouses strong emotions. "We have an obligation as a nation to prevent deaths in the desert, but what Humane Borders is doing is sedition," says Chris Simcox, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, the self-styled border watchdog group based in Scottsdale, Ariz. "They're aiding and abetting criminal activity by giving out maps."

Hoover has had his share of encounters with anti-immigration protesters sitting in lawn chairs, and holding rifles, along the border. He gets plenty of warnings, too. "Some people send us checks; some send death threats," he says in his office at the First Christian Church in Tucson. After appearances on talk radio, hate mail also arrives on his computer, such as: "Don't be surprised, reverend, if your church blows up." He seems unfazed: "You do what you do because of who you are, not because of who they are."


A native of West Texas (and proud of it), Hoover grew up in Big Spring. He's had previous jobs in nursing, photography, and commercial construction. He earned a BA from Texas Christian University, a master's degree from TCU's Brite Divinity School, and a PhD in political science from Texas Tech University. He wrote his doctoral thesis on migration policy and religious nonprofit groups.

Before moving to Tucson in 2000, he ministered to border communities in the Rio Grande Valley. The books in his church office in Tucson range from biblical studies and ethics to political theory and current events. When he works late, he listens to Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet/singer-songwriter. "Leonard Cohen said it best: Love is the only engine of survival," he says.

Hoover preaches to his congregation every Sunday. Much of the rest of the time he's out in the desert in his double-insulated work boots (to protect against snake bites) and "Ex Officio" shirts with lots of pockets (to hold cellphones, GPS devices, and notepads).

Hoover has spent enough time in political science classrooms to know the competing immigration arguments. But he believes that Christian teachings trump political science. "We can analyze these things to death. But we're left with: What are you doing for 'the least of these,' " he says, referring to Matthew 25:45.

A natural storyteller, with a salty streak, he says he could not see what he has seen – tiny shoes left in the desert, near-miss rescues, close encounters with angry critics – without a sense of humor. "You have to have a sense of humor or you'll cry yourself into a mess," he says.

To be sure, the migration issue isn't only about poor people seeking a better life. It's also about drugs and guns, smuggling, human trafficking, and crime. Farmers' fences get cut, cattle are killed, families robbed. Debris piles up and so do costs to local communities and taxpayers.

"There's no one, no one, no one happy with the migration," he says. "I love the migrants, but I do not romanticize the migrants."

Nearly 3,000 people were rescued in the desert by the border patrol in fiscal 2006 alone. Last November, border patrol agents in the Tucson sector rescued four Humane Borders members, who failed to return to a water station. "We all help each other," says Hoover. "They [the agents] tell me they sometimes drink our water."

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