When my grandparents came to this country in the early 1920s, they arrived at Ellis Island with many other European immigrants. After a long journey by boat, they saw the Statue of Liberty in the distance--an almost majestic way of entering this country.
These days, the majesty is gone for many Mexicans and others as they try to enter the United States, albeit illegally, by foot after traveling through the desert. As local musician Pablo states, "This is the Ellis Island of the desert, but you are not greeted with an embracing hand."
Each year, hundreds of migrants perish in the desert on their trek to the United States. According to Humane Borders executive director Sue Goodman, the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office reported 279 deaths in the Tucson sector during fiscal year 2005.
Humane Borders is a faith-based organization whose primary mission is to "lower the number of deaths in the desert," says Goodman. Co-founded in 2000 by her husband, the Rev. Robin Hoover, pastor of First Christian Church, Humane Borders has worked to place water stations at various points in the desert.
"In March 2001, we started with our first water station. Now we have 83 water stations. ... Our mission seemed very simple: Put water out to keep people from dying. ... From May 1 to Sept. 30, we make 500 trips to the desert. We go out every day. On Friday, two trucks go out; on Saturday, three trucks. At least one truck goes out (per day). We go out on a weekly basis other times of the year," says Goodman.
Humane Borders uses a core group of 150 volunteers to maintain the water stations. "They fill up the truck with 350 gallons of water. (At the water station), they check the level, make sure it is safe to drink and pick up trash. Goodman says in the six years of operation, more than 8,000 people have gone out to service water stations.
As the number of stations has increased, so has the number of gallons of water dispensed. "We gave away 35,000 gallons of water last year," reports Goodman. The water comes out of the tap at their church offices on Speedway Boulevard.
But supplying water to migrants is only part of the mission of Humane Borders. "Our second mission is to advocate for immigration reform," says Goodman. "In the beginning, we didn't know how we would do that. It takes money. In May 2001, when 14 people died on the same day in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Humane Borders was part of that story. We asked to put water out and were denied access. From that point on, we have been sought out by the media as a humanitarian voice.
"We go the extra mile to get the story of the border out there to educate people. We have more than 1,700 articles printed about us in our drawer--from news crews in 21 different countries. ... Looking back, we increased our capacity to carry out our mission."
To commemorate the sixth anniversary of Humane Borders, the public is invited to an event featuring a film festival, dinner, live music, silent auction and raffle on Saturday, June 10. The celebration begins at 4 p.m. with a silent auction and two-hour film festival. Films include Crossing Arizona, Mojados, Dying to Get In and Death of a Friendly Border. Dinner is served at 6:30 p.m. The program begins at 7 p.m. with comments by Hoover, music by Pablo, and a talk by Ed Keeylocko. The film festival is repeated at 8:15 p.m. Festivities take place at First Christian Church, 740 E. Speedway Blvd. Cost is $15; RSVP by calling 628-7753. For more information, visit humaneborders.org.
At last year's Humane Border's anniversary, local musician Pablo was stunned by what he saw on display. "They had exhibits (of what was left behind by migrants). I saw backpacks, pictures of loved ones ... When I saw strollers and baby shoes, I told KXCI DJ Cactus Cathy I would write a song," he recalls.
Pablo was born in Nogales, Sonora, and became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. Growing up in the middle between the Anglo and Mexican kids in Nogales, he says he feels for the migrants. As a local performer at venues including Bookmans and Bentley's, Pablo says he is working on a CD of songs based on the border issue. "My message is awareness. My message is humanitarian. Don't let the people die."
Pablo has already written two songs about the border issue and plans to perform them at the Humane anniversary event. His lyrics speak of the torment of trying to cross the border. In "Run, Run, Run" he sings:
The border is an open wound
A wound that sheds its tears of blood
For the one who crosses it
And for the loved ones that are left behind.
But even more haunting is "Water Is My Religion"--a song about the increased importance of water while crossing the desert. These words may have even been a migrant's last:
Got a long, long way to go
Through the north tip of Mexico
We're not accustomed to this heat
We just didn't know.