- LUKEVILLE, Ariz. -- Monica
Zavala and Chris Risley-Curtiss worked together to fill a 65-gallon water
barrel atop a wooden platform at the edge of a desert trail in the rugged
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument here.
- The barrel sits under a bright blue flag, hoisted some
30 feet in the air, and the two women hope it will be spotted by at least
some of the 50,000 illegal immigrants who cross this desolate and dry border
region daily, headed into the United States.
- Miss Zavala and Miss Risley-Curtiss are part of a growing
cadre of men and women along the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border who have
committed themselves to assisting the illegal immigrants in their northbound
- Their actions have been applauded by some and questioned
by others, including federal and local law-enforcement authorities who
believe the water stations serve to entice illegal aliens who might not
otherwise try to cross the desert. Authorities also say the stations act
as watering holes for drug smugglers who transport tons of illicit narcotics
each year across the southern Arizona border.
- "I'm doing this because it's the right thing to
do," said Miss Zavala, a social worker and member of Humane Borders,
a nondenominational church organization that has set up 25 water stations
in the desert southwest of Tucson.
- "In my heart of hearts, I couldn't sleep at night
knowing that putting out water would save a life and I didn't do it,"
- Miss Risley-Curtiss, a college professor and a first-time
visitor to the water station, described her daylong visit as "the
humane thing to do, to put out water to save those who try to come into
the United States."
- "I teach this stuff. I believe in this. People die,
whether you agree or not in them coming across the border," she said.
"When you realize that many of them are not going to make it, what
other choice do you have?"
- A 'humane environment'
- Humane Borders, based in Tucson, was established in June
2000 for what its founder, the Rev. Robin Hoover, said was to create "a
just and humane border environment."
- Mr. Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church,
said the group is committed to responding with humanitarian assistance
to those who risk their lives crossing the border and to the creation of
public policies toward a "humane, nonmilitarized border" with
work opportunities for migrants in the United States.
- The group's spokeswoman, Sister Elizabeth Ohmann, said
a revised U.S. Border Patrol enforcement strategy that saw the agency take
control of several border towns and ports of entry forced many illegal
immigrants to seek more dangerous routes into the United States, including
the southern Arizona desert, where there is little or no water and summer
temperatures can soar to 120 degrees.
- She said several of the migrants, including women and
children, have died trying to avoid capture.
- "The Border Patrol has forced these people into
dangerous areas of the desert, where they are ill-equipped to deal with
the heat and the terrain," she said. "Many of these people will
die. We do what we can to save lives in the desert."
- Stern warnings posted by the Border Patrol from Texas
to California and a media advertising campaign in Mexico listing the dangers,
including death, have not deterred the aliens, who continue to pour into
this country in search of work, economic security, political freedom and
government entitlements. More than 3 million illegal immigrants are expected
to try to enter this country this year.
- Humane Border's barrels are located in some of the areas
most heavily traveled by illegal aliens, and the Border Patrol has voiced
concerns on whether they have attracted even more immigrants into the desert.
- "While we understand the rationale for the water
stations, we would caution that we would not want them to create a false
sense of security to enter these dangerous desert areas," said Assistant
Chief Carlos X. Carrillo at the Border Patrol's Tucson sector headquarters.
- "The smugglers who are taking these people through
these areas will abandon them if they can't keep up, including the children
who are the most vulnerable to dehydration and heat exhaustion," he
said. "Water by itself will not cure heat exhaustion or heat stroke."
- Helping drug traffickers
- Several Border Patrol field agents and other law-enforcement
authorities, including members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, believe the
water stations are being used by alien smugglers and drug smugglers to
help them through the desert. They said numerous maps have been discovered
on both sides of the border showing the precise location of each of the
- "It's no coincidence the smugglers have found the
stations and use those specific trails to get the aliens or their drugs
across the border," said one law- enforcement official.
- There are no Humane Borders water stations on the 3-million-acre
Tohono O'odham Nation, adjacent to Organ Pipe. The reservation, which shares
76 miles of international border with Mexico, already has to deal with
thousands of illegal aliens crossing the nation every month and has banned
- Alexandra Terry, Tohono O'odham spokeswoman, said the
water stations attract additional aliens, who further strain an already
overburdened police department and health care facilities trying to deal
with the daily influx of illegal immigrants.
- "They serve no good purpose for us," she said.
- Another group looking to help illegal immigrants in the
desert is the Samaritan Patrol, also based in Tucson, whose members roam
the southern Arizona desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles to search out
- The patrol's organizers include former members of the
sanctuary movement, which assisted those fleeing Central American political
persecution in the 1980s. Some sanctuary movement members have been convicted
of conspiracy and other charges involving the illegal entry of aliens.
- The group, calling its operations humanitarian and within
U.S. immigration law, hands out food, water, medical supplies and, if necessary,
transports the illegal immigrants to the nearest hospital or health care
facility. The members also will contact the Border Patrol at the immigrants'
request if they want to be returned to Mexico.
- Their vehicles are emblazoned with a sign that says "Patrullaje
Samaritano" (Samaritan Patrol in Spanish) and a green cross, the Mexican
symbol for assistance. The organization has a core membership of about
three dozen people, but as many as 50 showed up for a recent daylong training
session seeking to qualify for patrol duty.
- "We patrol the high-death areas of the southern
Arizona desert and render aid where needed," said Samaritan Patrol
member Doug Ruopp, an elementary school teacher in south Tucson. "We
are trying to keep these people from dying."
- He described the members as "committed people of
faith" looking to save lives in the desert, adding that "knowing
people are in trouble and not doing anything about it is wrong."
- The patrol, which includes doctors, lawyers, teachers
and other professionals, has targeted a 150-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico
border from the Organ Pipe National Monument to the Coronado National Forest,
near Nogales, Ariz., a rugged desert terrain where several illegal aliens
- Coming under fire
- The Border Patrol is keeping an eye on Samaritan Patrol
to determine whether its members are violating immigration law by aiding
those who have illegally entered the country. Federal law prohibits U.S.
residents from rendering aid to immigrants "in furtherance of their
- Others, including Arizonans for Immigration Control,
already believe the group has violated the law, saying patrol members have
driven illegal aliens to locations other than health care facilities. The
organization asked in a recent letter to the Border Patrol sector office
in Tucson that Samaritan Patrol be investigated and, perhaps, prosecuted.
- Mr. Ruopp said that as long as Samaritan Patrol members
transport aliens for medical care, their efforts can be viewed only as
humanitarian and not in violation of the law.
- He said he has "counseled" members not to take
the illegal aliens to anything other than a medical facility.
- However, he acknowledged, "It's a big organization,
and you can't control everyone. We have no intention of breaking the law,
but we are not the immigration police."
- Samaritan Patrol came under heavy criticism in July,
just after the group organized, when some of its members transported two
illegal aliens to a Tucson church, where they could be given food, water
and medical care.
- The two migrants, a man and a woman, have since been
turned over to the Border Patrol and returned to Mexico.
- The incident prompted a meeting between Samaritan Patrol
and the Border Patrol, during which the organization was asked about its
mission and was advised about U.S. immigration law.
- "The outcome was resolved in a satisfactory way
for both sides," said Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels. "There
needs to be a very defined line drawn between rendering aid to someone
and actually transporting somebody or furthering their entrance illegally
into the United States."
- Humane Borders set up its water stations in southern
Arizona in the wake of the Border Patrol's success in controlling illegal
entry at border towns and established ports of entry, an enforcement strategy
that has forced many immigrants to seek more dangerous routes into the
- Trails of death
- Mr. Hoover said the government thought it "could
use the desert as a deterrent" but ended up "forcing people down
- At the water stations, each of the bright blue barrels
has the word "agua" painted on the side. The barrels are filled
with water hauled to the sites by a Humane Borders-owned flatbed truck.
The truck carries water bottles, which are hand-carried to the water stations,
and a 325-gallon water tank, which is used to fill the bottles.
- Humane Borders claims a membership of 1,200 but mustered
just seven volunteers on a hot day here in July to refill two water barrels
in Organ Pipe. It also has distributed blankets and medical kits to shelters
in Mexico, along with maps showing the locations of the water stations.
- Last year, the Pima County Board of Supervisors in Tucson
gave Humane Borders $25,000 to maintain the stations. A lawsuit by six
Tucson residents challenged the expenditure of the funds, saying they went
to a politically oriented group whose purpose was to aid persons who had
violated the law. The lawsuit was dismissed last month by a county judge.
- Deaths of illegal aliens crossing the U.S.-Mexico border
declined 20 percent last year. But while the Border Patrol has stepped
up enforcement activities in the towns and ports of entry, illegal immigrants
have moved to the more remote areas, where many have died.
- In an effort to reinforce its belief that the water stations
give illegal aliens a false sense of security, the Border Patrol last year
released a videotaped interview of Fidel Alonso Mireles, who was among
eight Mexican nationals caught trying to cross Organ Pipe.
- The eight had refilled their water jugs at one of the
Humane Borders stations, but Fidel, 18, said his brother, Jorge Alonso
Mireles, 24, died anyway from heat exhaustion.
- "There was more than enough water, but he couldn't
make it," Fidel said, adding that his group had taken a trail into
the United States along State Highway 85, south of Why, Ariz., because
they knew about the water stations.
- In the video, Fidel was asked whether he had a message
for others seeking to cross into the United States: "They shouldn't
risk it out there. It's very dangerous."
- In Yuma, the Border Patrol has erected six rescue beacons
in the desert aimed at assisting illegal aliens who get hurt or become
ill in areas where there is little water and the temperature on the desert
floor can reach 150 degrees.
- The beacon towers are 30 feet high with a strobe light
on top for easy recognition in low-light conditions. On the lower part
of the tower, there is an instructional sign with a warning written in
Spanish and English. There also is an illustrated description on the sign.
- In the bottom center of the sign is an activation button,
which operates a transmitter that sends a signal to a sensor repeater.
The repeater then transmits the signal to the Border Patrol, which then
dispatches a helicopter and ground units to the scene.
- Between 1994 and 2001, 84 illegal aliens died in the
desert east of Yuma where the beacons now stand ó about 93 percent
of all the deaths in the Yuma sector, which is responsible for 118 miles
of the U.S.-Mexico border. During that same period, the Border Patrol rescued
470 illegal aliens.