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A Day In The Imperial Valley Helping Migrants Unseen

Photo by Adrian Florido

John Hunter and his wife, Laura, placed water in one of the roughly 150 water stations they maintain for migrants crossing the Imperial Valley desert.

Volunteers with the Water Station leave water for migrants crossing California's Imperial Valley desert.

OCOTILLO, CA -- At 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday, about a dozen volunteers gathered at a little roadside cafe in this tiny, dusty desert town, about 90 miles east of San Diego and seven miles north of the Mexican border.

After breakfast, the volunteers loaded gallons of water into their cars and pickup trucks. Then, for the second to last time this year, they fanned out across the expanse of rugged terrain, to place the bottles of water for Mexican migrants crossing the desert.

John Hunter, a scientist and defense contractor, founded this volunteer group in 2000 after reading about the many migrant deaths in the Imperial Valley each year. The group is called Water Station, and operates on a shoestring donation budget. Other groups, including the Border Angels, do periodic water drops in the desert. But in terms of output, Water Station is the largest, most organized and most consistent group leaving water for migrants in California's brutal Imperial Valley.

From March through October, the volunteers go out every two weeks to check on each of the roughly 150 blue plastic barrels that they maintain full of gallon jugs over a vast area.

On the last Saturday of September, Hunter, his wife Laura and two other volunteers made the trek into Carrizo Creek, a rugged pass that winds for seven miles through a range of hills. It's a popular route for migrants crossing the desert, but Hunter said it's one of the most dangerous in the area because it's so remote. In the summer months, temperatures can approach 120 degrees. There's no cell phone coverage, so stranded migrants can't call for help.

The first barrel they checked in Carrizo Creek, about half a mile in, was missing 10 of the 12 gallon-bottles the group stocks in each barrel.

"We had a lot of usage," Hunter said, as he lowered 12 new gallons of water into the barrel before replacing the lid, held in place by a rock. "And it was real usage, not vandalism, because when it's vandalism they stab the bottles."

The volunteers rarely see the people who drink their water. In fact, they don't care who uses it. They said it's saved thirsty migrants, but also dehydrated hikers and drivers with overheating engines. Still, the group's work is at times sabotaged by people with anti-immigrant sentiments. A barrel checked by one volunteer on the recent trip contained 12 unopened, yet empty bottles, thanks to knife slashes.

Hunter acknowledges the controversy over immigration politics. In fact, his brother is Duncan L. Hunter, the former Republican, anti-immigrant Congressman from this area, and his nephew is current Congressman Duncan D. Hunter. But John Hunter says this work is apolitical.

"I'm very right-wing actually. I believe in a strong military. I went in Iraq three times putting armor on vehicles. I believe in killing terrorists and I'm also for waterboarding," he said. "But I just don't think you should be really cruel to innocent people, letting men and women die in the desert."

Photo by Adrian Florido

John Hunter, who founded the Water Station volunteer group in 2000, and his wife Laura.

In the early days after starting the volunteer group in 2000, Hunter and his wife Laura, a Mexican immigrant who at the time was just a friend, did much of this work themselves, with just one or two other volunteers.

"In those years we had 340 water stations," Laura Hunter said. "So sometimes the sun would be going down, and we'd still be working because we had to cover all those water stations."

More recently, they've downsized to just 150 stations, placed in the most dangerous areas measured by where migrants have been found dead.

The downsizing was partly because the volunteer group lacks resources. But also because fewer migrants are crossing in the Imperial Valley. As the U.S. Border Patrol presence has surged here, and the border fence has gotten taller, more migrants are trying their luck in Arizona and Texas, where death tolls are reaching the hundreds.

And yet, migrants are still dying in the Imperial Valley too. At least 10 from heat exhaustion this year, John Hunter estimated.

At one water station in the Carrizo Creek pass, John and Laura Hunter walked over to a tall shrub. In the summer of 2008, a young migrant's body was found in its shade.

Photo by Adrian Florido

A water station in the Imperial Valley's Carrizo Creek, Sept. 28, 2013. In the background, a cross made of stones marks the spot where a young migrant died of heat exhaustion in 2008.

He was one of four young men who died in the pass on the same day.

"We didn't have enough water at the stations when these guys came through," Hunter said. "And so we decided to go stack a lot more water in here. Even then we're almost running out, because there must have been a group that came here in the last two weeks."

This was their second to last trip of the year. Their permits from the Federal Bureau of Land Management only allow them to have water stations out from March through October. The statistics show that when the temperatures start to drop in November, deaths from heat exhaustion and dehydration drop too.

So on Oct. 26, the Water Station's volunteers will fan out across the Imperial desert and remove all 150 barrels of water, until March, when they'll go out and set them all back up again.

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