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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.

Aired 10/9/13 on KPBS News.

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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Avatar for user 'progressivebuthey'

progressivebuthey | October 9, 2013 at 12:44 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

now that illegals can practice "law" in California i'm not surprised by any effort to help the "victims" to our immigration laws. Mexicans identify with victimization and do gooders see themselves as saviors. it's a dysfunctional pattern and the rest of us have to pay while these two characters play out their drama.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | October 9, 2013 at 2:08 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

"Mexicans identify with victimization and do gooders see themselves as saviors."

One of the lamest comments posted on this comment board in the last 5 years, and that's saying a lot. I'm sure your dinner parties are as culturally diverse as meetings of the U.N.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | October 9, 2013 at 2:20 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

It is admirable that they want to help, but they are actually harming illegal aliens.

Putting out supplies encourages MORE people to do a very dangerous (and illegal) thing. That means more deaths will be inevitable as a direct result of their actions.
Plus more burden and threats to local homeowners and law enforcement.

Instead they should work to educate people in Mexico to the deadly danger of illegally crossing the border and work to improve the lives of those who think about crossing.

That will save lives and increase the quality of life for everyone on both sides of the border.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | October 10, 2013 at 6:28 a.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago


Mexico already broadcasts public service announcements about the dangers of crossing the border. If you listen to any of the AM radio stations which broadcast out of Tijuana - when you're not listening to KPBS, of course - you can hear them during commercial breaks. The stories told by those who illegally cross between Tecate and Tijuana are material for movies. Anyway, it's not like they killed someone, so they don't deserve to die.

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Avatar for user 'dvhoran'

dvhoran | October 10, 2013 at 10:18 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

CaliforniaDefender: Your concern is not unreasonable. Many of us at Water Station have thought about that at one time or another. But the fact is that, when John deployed the first stations thirteen years ago, people were dying left and right in the desert of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Today, that number is close to zero. We can't know what role our work has played in that statistical decline, but the numbers show us with a high degree of confidence that our work does not cause an increase in deaths.

I'm not sure what you meant when you said, "more burden and threats to local homeowners and law enforcement" but I can assure you that, in the areas where we operate, there are no homes; simply miles and miles of hot, dry, unnavigable desert.

Thank you to KPBS for broadcasting this story. It's easy for people to get caught up in abstract rhetoric around the immigration debate and forget that human beings are literally dying to get into this country to try and make a better life for them and their families. Hopefully this helped to remind a few people of the human lives that are affected and even lost every day along the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | October 10, 2013 at 11:35 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

PROGRESSIVE BULLY, what do YOU identify yourself with? White anglo saxon Protestant hegemony?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | October 10, 2013 at 11:38 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

Offender and Delarick, at least since the 90s. In fact they are even frowned upon by some Mexicans for leaving--those that do not return, that is. But all the supplies in the desert will NOT attract more as CA Offender theorizes if they cannot afford the price the cross.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | October 10, 2013 at 11:40 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

Cruelty on the border -‎
Jul 20, 2012 - A hidden camera shows Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs left for ... died at the hands of Border Patrol agents over the past two years.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | October 11, 2013 at 2:33 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago


Thank you for the reply. Again your heart in the right place, but I'm still not convinced that Water Station is doing the right thing.

It seems akin to putting supplies outside prisons to aid escapees. While we don't want escapees to die, the knowledge that there are supplies waiting for them might encourage them to try. Just the same for those thinking of crossing the border.

What about coyotes using the caches as part of their human smuggling operations? They probably know where they are and use them for their own benefit (and profit).

Is the Border Patrol aware of the location of the caches? It would seem like a good idea to put up cameras in those locations to assist in apprehensions. Otherwise aren't you aiding and abetting in the commission of a federal crime?

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Avatar for user 'prkemp'

prkemp | October 12, 2013 at 2:15 p.m. ― 3 years, 5 months ago

Hunter says: "I'm also for waterboarding," "But I just don't think you should be really cruel to innocent people, letting men and women die in the desert.

Who's innocent here?? The people who cross the border are known to be committing at least one crime -- entering the country illegally. Many are also participating in human trafficking, smuggling drugs, or other illegal activities. So let's not be "cruel" to these people, but, for Hunter, it's OK to water-board someone who is SUSPECTED of having information, whether or not they actually have that information!

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