It was already triple-digit weather that early morning when my son and I pulled up to the Red Feather Café in Ocotillo, a desert town just over 300 people strong. We met half a dozen individuals gathered to volunteer with Water Station, a volunteer-based organization that places and maintains over 150 water stations in the Imperial County desert every March through October. This year they are operating 166 stations, permitted by the Bureau of Land Management. Dr. John Hunter, a physicist from Escondido, and Laura Hunter, a former elementary school teacher from Mexico, started the project 17 years ago. Their mission was to reduce the heat-related deaths that were occurring in the grueling Imperial County deserts. Most of the people dying were migrant border crossers who had become lost or were left behind by their groups.
In the pummeling heat the volunteers dispersed out into three groups, each targeting a different set of water stations placed in areas where deaths have been recorded in previous years. My son and I joined Francisco for our run, an older Latino man with a gentle but determined disposition. He told us he had been doing this since the 1990s before Water Station formed, placing water in desert ravines in remote areas, north of Interstate 8. He joined Water Station as a volunteer because he wanted to have greater impact collaborating with other people concerned about saving lives.
We followed Francisco on State Route 98, which links up to the border city of Calexico some 30 miles southeast of Ocotillo. On the roadside parallel to Route 98 are the orange and blue marker flags, indicating the location of the plastic barrels that hold six gallons of water. Written on the blue-colored barrels in Spanish and English is agua, water. For someone walking for hours or days in oven-like climate, where the average temperature this year for the month of August was 107 degrees, access to water means that the border crosser might not succumb to the stifling heat and unforgiving elements. Heat stroke, dehydration, and hyperthermia have been leading causes for migrant deaths along the US-Mexico border since the 1990s.
In two hours that morning we serviced approximately 48 stations, hopscotching in our cars to each station, replacing empty water jugs and sporadically raising and reinforcing toppled 20-foot flagpoles. An occasional Border Patrol vehicle drove by, the agent signaling with a slight hand wave each time.
Migrant deaths have reduced significantly in the area over the years, but it wasn’t always like that. At the height of an aggressive anti-immigrant period in California in the mid 1990s, the federal government carried out a Southwestern border enforcement strategy that pushed the migrant flow from urban areas to less populated and inhospitable terrain. In California this “prevention through deterrence” strategy included Operation Gatekeeper, implemented under President Bill Clinton on October 1, 1994. Thus, unauthorized migration in urban San Diego became less visible as more dangerous routes were flaring up in eastern San Diego County and deeper into Imperial County. According to a Desert Sun story, since the 1990s “about 450 unidentified bodies have been found in Imperial County,” most of them immigrants who perished attempting to cross through intolerant landscape. Just 40 miles east of Ocotillo, at the Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California, about 240 John and Jane Doe headstones mark the remains of the unidentified, most of which are believed to be of migrants who perished in the desert under excruciating circumstances.
The enforcement strategy coincided with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a neoliberal economic arrangement between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico that liberalized trade and commerce, and promised to harmonize each country’s economies to each other. It is criticized, though, for provoking displacement in Mexico, as working poor Mexicans cannot compete with foreign products sold at cheaper prices.
Civil and human rights organizations have denounced the enforcement strategy as having caused a humanitarian crisis. Since its deployment, human rights advocates spoke out against the border militarization. In 1999, Roberto Martínez, former director of the American Friends Service Committee’s US/Mexico Border Program, reflected that 418 migrant deaths had been recorded in the four years after Operation Gatekeeper’s implementation. Twenty-two years later, Gatekeeper and the expanded enforcement strategy’s death toll from San Diego to Brownsville is closer to 7000, if we consider the most recent comprehensive data.
“I’d like to believe that our water stations have saved lives,” John Hunter told me in a recent outing while racing through the live bombing range north of Plaster City, California, at about 40 miles per hour on sandy dunes. Before crossing the range we watched for any aerial activity that might indicate artillery fire or 25-pound bomb drops. There are no water stations inside the range, but a recent BORSTAR rescue of 10 severely dehydrated migrants reveals the area is active to border crossers.
John, Laura, and the volunteers come out every two weeks during the 8-month operation. Frances Beope, Water Station board of director’s president, began volunteering in 2004. She prefers to get out early in order to avoid having to maintain the stations in the middle of the day when the hot sun burns off whatever skin protectant lotion hasn’t yet sweated away. The groups stay in contact with each other during the outing. There are certain risks that you assume while out in the desert, apart from heat related illnesses.
Occasionally, the barrels have been vandalized and water jugs have been slashed. This also has happened elsewhere to other groups that place life-saving water along the US-Mexico border. Though encounters with vandals are rare, Water Station and other such groups suspect anti-immigrant groups might be involved.
On our third run with John, the 4×4 truck we rode on got stuck on the soft sand when we stopped to service a water station. A tow truck was not necessary, as we patted the sand with water and used cardboard to create friction. In the Carrizo Gorge Wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, there is no cellular phone reception so Frances and others who take care of that area carry along a satellite phone, just in case.
October 22 will be mark the end of this season’s operations. Water Station volunteers will collect the barrels and remaining water jugs, take down the sun-burnt flags, and hope that in this year’s efforts they were able to save lives. To learn how to support the life-saving measures of Water Station, please visit: www.waterstations.orgPedro Rios serves as director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program and has been on staff with AFSC for 13 years. He is on the board of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a coalition of over 35 different organizations in San Diego working to support the rights of immigrants and refugees.
A native San Diegan, Pedro has worked on immigrant rights and border issues for over 20 years. He became active on immigration issues in the early 1990s, and continued to work with immigrants professionally and personally over that time. Currently, Pedro oversees a program that advocates for the de-militarization of the US-Mexico border. His program documents abuses by law enforcement agencies, advocates for policy change, and works with migrant communities on leadership development. Pedro graduated from the University of San Diego with a BA in English, and graduated with honors from San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies, for an MA in Ethnic Studies.