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Treatment of Illegal Immigrants from Mexico Draws Sympathy, Anger - 2004-05-20

Part 4 of 5

The focal point of current U.S. efforts to secure the nation's borders is now southern Arizona, where tens of thousands of immigrants cross over the border from Mexico every year. The dramatic migration over harsh desert terrain has drawn both sympathy and anger from U.S. citizens' groups in the area.

The differences over the issue of immigration are at their widest here in Arizona. U.S. law enforcement officials on the border find themselves caught between citizen vigilantes wanting to seal off the border and humanitarian groups trying to help immigrants survive in the desert.

The Reverend Robin Hoover, pastor of the First Christian Church in Tucson, is president of the group called Humane Borders. In response to the hundreds of migrant deaths in the hot, dry desert, Humane Borders has placed dozens of 227-liter barrels of drinking water in remote locations. Those who favor more restrictions on immigration accuse Reverend Hoover and his volunteers of assisting illegal immigration. But he says they have it all wrong.

"Our name, our organization is "Humane Borders," not "Open Borders" or "No Borders" or anything else," he says. "We want a border that recognizes jurisdiction and the authority that goes with the border, but we want one that does not kill people, one that we can live with, one that does not cost us, one that does not embarrass us socially, publicly and internationally."

Reverend Hoover says the water stations his group places in the desert, marked by long poles with flags on top, are not meant to encourage illegal immigration, but to help those immigrants who are in distress.

"Almost all of our stations are in very strategic, remote locations where there is less traffic, but there are deaths. We put the water there and where we put it there are fewer deaths. Now, the Border Patrol sort of has a gentlemen's agreement with that and understands the nature of us trying to save lives," says Reverend Hoover. "David Aguilar, the chief patrol agent here says that in that task or that goal, we are partners."

Mr. Aguilar, the local Border Patrol chief, says he does support the goal of saving lives, but he says the water stations are not out of bounds for his agents. "We do not consider the water stations or any other area for that matter any kind of safe zone, if you will. We conduct patrols. We conduct operations in and around the water stations on an ongoing basis. We would actually be remiss if we did not take a look at those water stations for the very simple reason that if, in fact, people are fortunate enough to reach a water station, they still find themselves in the middle of the desert," he says. "Once they step away from that water station, they find themselves in a very dangerous, very treacherous part of the country that will kill them very, very quickly."

Border Patrol agents also search for migrants in distress and often send special rescue teams into the desert to assist people in danger. Last year, the Border Patrol rescued over a thousand immigrants who had put themselves in life-threatening situations after crossing into the United States. But 340 immigrants died. This year, under a special ten-million dollar operation, the Border Patrol is trying to save more lives by cutting off the illegal migration through this desert.

Watching all of this with skepticism from his Sierra Vista home is Glenn Spencer, head of the private citizens' group known as American Border Patrol. This group, on occasion, flies its own small remote-controlled airplanes, which are equipped with video cameras that transmit signals back to a monitoring station. "When the airplane flies over and we can look down and see the people, we call the Border Patrol and tell them exactly where they are -- longitude and latitude," he says. "We also put an image up on the internet so America can watch this live.

The Border Patrol is also beginning to use camera-equipped drones in this area of the border.

Glenn Spencer's American Border Patrol does not send out armed volunteers to catch immigrants, the way some other groups do. Mr. Spencer makes clear that his intention is to prod the U.S. government to do something about a problem he says is costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars and adversely affecting the U.S. quality of life. He rejects the idea, put forth by many immigrant advocates, that undocumented workers contribute to the U.S. economy.

"They should not be here," says Mr. Spencer. "If we want to have an economic system based on sound fundamentals of economics, labor rules and the rule of law, we cannot have them here. Either that, or we are just going to have to tear down all the borders and have an economic free-for-all. And if you want chaos, do that."

Civil rights groups have charged that Mr. Spencer and others who work with him are anti-Mexican racists. Mr. Spencer denies being a racist, but he does say he is opposed to what he calls a "cultural invasion" from Mexico. He says those who support the migrants, even for humanitarian purposes, are helping Mexico regain the land of the American southwest, which it lost to the United States in 1847.

Most immigration experts dismiss this idea, saying that immigrants come seeking work and have no political strategy in mind. Glenn Spencer, however, says his organization will continue raising money to increase awareness of the issue and to put pressure on U.S. politicians to do something about it.

Photos Courtesy of Greg Flakus