Political contenders jockey for attention on how tough their immigration policies are or what can be done to reform the system, while everyday people in Arizona go into the desert to provide humanitarian aid to migrants.
One couple, John and Diane Hoelter, volunteer with Humane Borders to provide water to migrants crossing the Southern Arizona desert, a dangerous journey that has claimed many lives.
According to the 2014 Annual Report from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, they have received 2,330 recovered remains of suspected undocumented border crossers since 2001.
There were 129 bodies recovered in 2014, the overall trend has been going down since a peak of 223 bodies were recovered in 2010.
Because most of the bodies recovered are so badly decomposed or in skeletal remains only, 84 percent had undetermined causes of death. For the remaining 20 bodies the leading cause of death was identified as exposure to extreme heat or cold combined with dehydration, the report said.
The danger in the desert is a source of concern for the Hoelters who wanted to reach out and contribute to finding a way to help reduce the number of migrant deaths.
“We’re living right in the middle of all these border issues and somehow not just to watch but to take a part for the humanitarian issues,” John said. “Bring water to the desert for those who need it.”
Humane Borders is a non-profit organization that manages water supply points throughout the desert to the south and west of Tucson. The water points consist of 55 gallon barrels with blue flags to mark their locations and make the emergency water visible to migrants.
The water stations are placed on federal and state land with permits and on private property with the consent of the landowner.
There is an agreement between the U.S. Border Patrol and Humane Borders that the water stations will not be used as traps for gathering migrants.
While the Border Patrol does not use the stations to locate migrants, Humane Borders does not provide transportation to migrants they encounter in the desert with the exception of extreme medical emergencies.
On one water supply run the couple transported 300 gallons of water to Sasabe, Sonora. Grupos Beta, a Mexican organization, received the water that will be used to provide humanitarian aid to migrants along the border on the Mexican side.
The work being done by Humane Borders and the Hoelters can be controversial especially to those living along the border with varying political interest and ideals.
During the drive to Sasabe, Sonora, John told stories illustrating how both sides of the divide will encounter them and voice their opinions about the work they do.
“We’ve run across people who were clearly objecting to what we were doing,” John said.
One of those people was an unknown man who would walk past them regularly while on one of their supply runs out into the desert. Every time the man saw John and the Humane Borders truck he would flip them off and John would simply wave back to the man, he said.
Some can be far more confrontational. In one incident a man berated the volunteers with cursing and insults as they made their way onto private property with the owner’s consent to refill a water station. To John Hoelter the response is simple.
“Let it go, let it go, there’s, you can’t talk him out of his position, there’s no reason to escalate the encounter to anything,” he said. “Just let it go.”
Despite trying to ignore the anger from some who disagree, the group does have to contend with acts of vandalism. There have been incidents where water stations have been emptied, shot and in one case stabbed in order to deny the migrants of the water.
Not all of the encounters are negative however. While driving the water to Sasabe, a woman in a small yellow car drives past the couple waving and smiling as she goes.
Although the woman in the yellow car has never met the Hoelters, she waves to them every time they pass during the resupply runs.
For the Hoelters the work in providing relief to the migrants making the journey across the desert transcends party politics and presidential campaign speeches.
“It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are, it’s just about saving lives as much as we’re able to do that,” Diane said. “And we know it does make a difference having the water out there.”
To John Hoelter the strong calls for more deportations and tougher border security fails to understand the basic humanitarian issues.
“It’s foolish, it’s rhetoric which doesn’t make sense, it’s impossible to do, it displays more hate and fear than human compassion,” he said. “And I think they’re spouting all that to, if you will, gain votes against people who like that kind of ‘me first’ attitude.”
Jorge Encinas is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org