This Organization Is Trying To Take Death Out Of The Immigration System

"All we're trying to do is to prevent them from dying."

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Since January 1999, more than 3,000 migrants have died in Arizona's Sonoran Desert while trying to come to the United States.

To help reduce that number, an organization called Humane Borders has been building water stations on private property and federal land. Its singular mission is to reduce death in the immigration process, and save the lives of border crossers who die of dehydration while hiking for days through one of the most rugged and rural parts of the country.

"It is an organization with no political agenda of any kind," Bob Fineman, the vice chair of Humane Borders, told A Plus. "Whether you like it or not, people cross the border every day without the proper documents. And too often they die. All we're trying to do is to prevent them from dying."

Fineman stresses that even though undocumented immigrants may be breaking the law, he doesn't believe — and doesn't think anyone else believes either — that they should face capital punishment for that crime. Despite that, Humane Borders still faces opposition. Often times, its water stations are vandalized or destroyed by people who hold anti-immigrant sentiments.

While there are other organizations and groups that build water stations or leave water out for migrants in the Southwest, Humane Borders is unique in its effort to stay within the confines of the law. Fineman says that well-intentioned organizations and people often leave water out or build water stations on land where migrants have died, but then run into trouble. If you leave water on private property, you can be charged with any number of violations: trespassing, littering, and if you happen to do it on protected lands, you can endanger wildlife.

Humane Borders works with the border patrol and other government authorities to find the hotspots where migrants succumb to the elements. They scour public records to contact people who own the land and then reach out to them for permission to build the water stations. He said that when the organization approaches private landowners, the reaction is usually positive — so long as they are willing to listen to the entire story of what Humane Borders is trying to do.

"Our biggest challenge is getting over the preconceived notion people have that we're the guys who are going to spray paint the border control vehicles, handcuff ourselves to their vehicles, dare them to run us over, and protest and this and that," Fineman said. "Once we succeed in letting people know that that might be the other guys, but that's not us, quite frankly, people open to us. Then it just becomes a matter of whether or not we have the manpower and the budget to construct another station."

If it happens that a hotspot is on federally owned or protected land, then Humane Borders will approach the federal government for permission. When it is given permission, members of the organization construct a semi-permanent, 50-gallon water tank on concrete legs. Next to it, it will put a 50-foot-tall blue flag so migrants can spot the water station from far away. 

Courtesy of Humane Borders
Courtesy of Humane Borders

Fineman has been lucky enough to see the real-world payoff from his work. He was visiting a family member in the suburbs of New York City last year when his family asked him to translate while they spoke to a Spanish-speaking gardening group. After falling into a conversation about where Fineman was from, one of the men from El Salvador listened closely as Fineman explained the work he does with Humane Borders.

"The guy all of the sudden drops his gardening tool and gives me this hug," Fineman said. "He said, 'I don't know where they crossed me in Arizona, but I know that's where I did cross, and we were in trouble, and it was one of your water tanks that I found that I was able to drink from, and it saved my life. That's why I'm here today and I have this job.'"

It's stories like that which reinforce Fineman's belief that these migrants shouldn't just be left to die in the desert.

"If somebody wants to argue about whether the borders should be opened or closed, or if Trump's policies are good or bad, we will not engage in that kind of political argument," Fineman said. "If you were out there enjoying this beautiful area, and someone in distress taps you on the shoulder and asks if they can have a drink of water, would you really say no?"

Fineman, who used to be a Spanish-language radio broadcaster for 40 years, said he got involved with Humane Borders after coming across an article about them in the newspaper. Fineman said that one of the few things he remembers about his Jewish upbringing was the story of the Passover seder: a group of lost Jews following Moses around in the desert for 40 years. 

"That was us," Fineman said. "If we're not going to step up and help others going through a similar thing, who is going to help?"

Cover image: Humane Borders

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