September 18, 2014
The Sonoran desert, a common crossing point for illegal immigration into the United States, is one of the hottest places in North America. Many who attempt the journey become dehydrated and die along the way. This has prompted one non-profit organization to provide migrants with what they need most to survive.
Water can mean life or death here in the Sonoran desert, says Ex-marine Joel Smith, operations manager for 'Humane Borders', a non-profit humanitarian organization based in Tucson, Arizona.
“You can walk for days out here and not find any water springs or wells, just cattle tanks with green algae if you're lucky," he said. "This time of year, if you're lucky, maybe a few mud puddles ... from the rains, but this is a desert. There's no water here.”
He is responsible for filling strategically-positioned barrels with fresh, cool water in the most remote, dangerous areas of the Sonoran desert, where dehydration is the leading cause of death.
To people he has never met, he is a life-saving hero, but not everyone agrees.
Arizona is home to a group known as the "Minutemen Project," - named after the Minutemen militia who fought during the American Revolution. The organization's members, some of whom are armed, monitor the border to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing.
The group's actions have included vandalism and death threats against those willing to help immigrants, says Humane Borders executive director Juanita Molina.
“Unfortunately the militia groups like the minutemen at times vandalize our water stations and vandalize our offices, trying to inhibit this effort, but in reality, you know, our primary purpose is to eliminate death from the immigration equation," she said.
Besides providing water, Humane Borders also offers basic life-saving information about water barrels and crosses the border to inform migrants of the dangers they face and where to call for help. It's a messaging initiative that the U.S. Border Patrol has joined to help lower the rate of deaths in the desert.
“The last three years we've been right around 200 deaths," said Pete Bidegain, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol. "This year we have one month left in the fiscal year, we're right at about 100, so we're down approximately 44 percent of what we've been at in the past. And a lot of that is contributed to messaging efforts that we've been putting out in Central America and Mexico.”
Even in the harsh Sonora Desert, Joel stays vigilant - regularly cleaning the water barrels and personally testing the water to ensure it remains fresh and cool.
“If I don't like the taste of it, I dump the whole barrel and replace it,” said Smith.
Together, Joel and Juanita say they are working to save lives, one barrel at a time.