By EDWARD SIFUENTES – firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 11:42 pm
OCOTILLO —- For 10 years, John Hunter of Escondido and a small group of volunteers have spent most of their spring and summer weekends in the hot, dry desert east of San Diego trying to save lives.
Volunteers, with federal government permission, place jugs of drinking water in the remote desert in an effort to reduce the number of people who die attempting to cross the border illegally each year.
Admittedly, it’s not much, but it could be enough to keep a person from dying of thirst in an area where the temperature regularly exceeds 110 degrees in summer, members of the group said.
Despite the dangers, thousands of illegal immigrants choose to cross the border in the desert to avoid intense patrols to the east around the town of Calexico and to the west in San Diego.
The group, founded by Hunter in 2000, is called the Water Station project. Its name springs from water stations the group builds a few miles north of the U.S. border with Mexico.
John Hunter, a physicist who has helped design and build war-fighting hardware, is the brother of former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, and the uncle of U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-El Cajon.
He said on Saturday, during the group’s first trip to replenish the water this year, that he never expected to be doing the work 10 years later.
“I was hoping the next year, I’d be finished,” he said.
As many as 5,607 illegal immigrants have died along the border over the last 15 years, according to a report released last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights.
Water Station project
The stations, placed about a quarter-mile apart, are made up of blue barrels containing six 1-gallon jugs of water and brightly colored blue and orange flags planted next to them as markers.
In the stretches of remote desert that surround the Ocotillo area in Imperial County, about 100 miles east of San Diego, nearly two dozen illegal immigrants die each year, Hunter’s group says. Many get lost, disoriented and die of dehydration in the unforgiving heat.
“What we do is really simple,” said Ben Cassel, a high school teacher and president of the organization. “We know that there are thirsty people there, and we take water to them.”
When the group started, it operated on a shoestring budget of about $5,000, including money out of Hunter’s pocket and some donations.
Not much has changed since then, he said, bouncing on a four-wheel-drive truck between water stations on Saturday. He joked frequently, with a contagious, self-deprecating humor.
“I’m no longer the president!” Hunter said before jumping out of the truck, looking for a marker where a station will be built.
The group is now a nonprofit organization. It hold permits from the federal government, including the Bureau of Land Management, for up to 400 stations. But it has fewer than 200 active stations, because of dwindling donations and a shortage of volunteers.
It takes about $30,000 a year to run the organization, including the costs of buying water, car insurance, permit fees, fuel and volunteer meals. The organization owns one truck it purchased with a donation that is used to take the water to remote desert locations.
‘Work no one else will do’
Volunteers, who provide their own vehicles and much of the labor, are rewarded with a free lunch at the Old Highway Cafe in Ocotillo, where they meet to divide the workload.
Every two weeks starting in late March, the group travels to the desert to replenish water jugs. Of the 35 stations visited by one group of volunteers along an old railroad line west of Ocotillo, about a dozen stations were missing one or more jugs.
Laura Hunter, John Hunter’s wife, said it is difficult but necessary work.
“We are doing the work no one else will do,” she said.
There is also a tinge of danger.
In Ocotillo, where the group stores its supplies, there were boxes of water containers with stab marks. Some people cut the jugs to spill the water, or tear the flags down. One of the barrels is pockmarked with bullet holes.
Rob Fryer, a longtime volunteer, said the bullet-riddled barrel was probably not intended as a malicious act, but more likely the work of a thoughtless individual.
The organization often gets hate mail, Laura Hunter said. John Hunter simply brushes those kinds of comments aside.
“I don’t care about being popular,” he said. “My wife and my kids are all that matters to me.”
However, his work does have some unlikely supporters. His brother, the former congressman, was a hero to immigration hard-liners during his long career as a lawmaker, but he helped the group secure permission for the project.
The former congressman’s son, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, who took over the seat and is also a critic of illegal immigration, said recently that his uncle is a “humanitarian and (is) trying to save lives.”
Although he comes from a family of conservative politicians, John Hunter said he tries to stay out of politics.
His brother joined a House majority in 2005 that approved a tough enforcement bill that included a measure to expand the definition of migrant smugglers to people who help them —- potentially even his younger brother. The bill failed to become law.
John Hunter said he was unaware of his brother’s involvement in the bill, but he said he would have disobeyed that law because he feels strongly that the water stations help save lives.
“I try to get along,” he said about his relationship with his family.
He added jokingly, “You’d hate to get kicked out of the family Thanksgiving and Christmas parties.”
Despite the humor, he takes the work seriously. In fact, he recently took on another cause.
Late last year, he swam across the All-American Canal to protest the drowning deaths of hundreds of illegal immigrants in that waterway.
He and another activist swam across the canal, which carries water from the Colorado River to San Diego County, to string safety buoys that illegal immigrants could use to cross the water safely.
As many as 600 people have drowned in the canal over the years, he said.
As he did when he noted the deaths in the desert, John Hunter said he decided to do something about the drowning deaths.
“It was a secret. It was unknown,” he said. “So we figured, we needed to do something about it.”
For more about the Water Station project, visit www.desertwater.org.
Call staff writer Edward Sifuentes at 760-740-3511.