August 15, 2008

Oasis of Hope for Migrants in the Desert

By David Maung

Ocotillo — It was difficult to distinguish the tears running down Laura Hunter’s face from her sweat as she read a prayer in the searing heat of the desert.

Hunter and eleven other volunteers with the migrant assistance group Water Station were placing a cross where one of three migrants had died of heat exhaustion alongside a dry river bed several weeks earlier. They left numerous one-gallon jugs of water as well for inevitable other migrants who would follow.

Since 2000, Water Station has been leaving drinking water in the Imperial Valley-area desert and mountains for undocumented migrants. Six of their stations were in the area where the three migrants died.

John Hunter, right, hugs his wife Laura Hunter as he and others have moment in front of a small altar they placed to mark the location where a migrant who was crossing undocumented into the United States from Mexico, had died of heat exhaustion several weeks earlier in a remote mountain area 10 miles north of the border and about 90 miles east of San Diego. Hunter is the founder of the migrant assistance group, Water Station, which leaves drinking water for migrants in the mountain and desert areas near El Centro, California. The deceased migrant was one of three men who died in the area. photo - David Maung.

“This really bothers us, it’s the first time we’ve seen people die near our stations,” said John Hunter, her husband and founder of Water Station. The day following the deaths, Hunter discovered that all the water they had left was gone. “There were more people in the area than there was water.”

The Imperial Valley area, about 100 miles east of San Diego and bordering on the Mexican state of Baja California, includes stretches of scrub pocketed desert and irrigation canals with deep and fast moving water. To the west, are hot, dry mountains scarred by sharp canyons. The rocky terrain is peppered with boulders, cactus and rattlesnakes. Well worn paths cut through many areas here, tamped down by footsteps of undocumented migrants.

Stepped up measures by the United States to secure the border with Mexico over the past decade has forced many undocumented migrants to choose these dangerous routes. Hundreds are known to have died across this stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, many after walking for days in temperatures that can reach over 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Carlos Reynaga tried his luck crossing the mountains here.

In April 2005, Reynaga, 32, crossed the border from nearby Tecate, Mexico with 17 people, but was separated from the group after they were pursued by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Reynaga quickly became lost, recounted his half-sister Candelaria Perez, 26, who lives in Oceanside, California.

“He had no idea where he was and after he ran out of water, he began to hallucinate, he imagined that our grandfather was with him. He began to regret things he’d done in the past and to pray,” said Perez. “He had never been that scared in his life. He thought he was going to die.”

On his third day lost Reynaga spotted a blue flag marking a water station set up by Water Station. Revived by the water, Reynaga was able to re-orient himself, find a highway and call his family.

“I could see this happening in the movies,” said his sister Perez, “but I never thought it could happen to us.

Years later, Perez saw a news story about Water Station and realized it was the same group which had saved her half-brother’s life. Since then, she, her sister Saribe Perez and a friend have been helping the group.

Many others are not as lucky as Reynaga.

In the past ten months at least ten migrants are known to have died in the 107,000 square miles patrolled by the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector

Water Station has only 140 water stations in an area of several hundred square miles.

But distance isn’t the only challenge.

For years vandals have damaged or destroyed the plastic barrels and the flags marking the water’s location. Water jugs are routinely punctured and left to drain into the desert’s sand.

In March, the group re-installed 42 stations along a stretch of road parallel to the Mexican border. Within a week all had been vandalized.

Vandalism and funding difficulties have forced the group to reduce the number of stations. In 2002, Water Station maintained 340 stations. Today it has 140.

Yet Hunter says their work must continue because the need is still there. One Saturday’s maintenance run found more than 100 one-gallon water jugs were missing, indicating to Hunter that people found need for the water.

“Thirty people a year were dying in this area when we started,” said Hunter. “I just think you have to do the best you can to save lives.”

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