Q&A: Meet Tucson-Based Nonprofit Humane Borders

Ahead of our 45th anniversary dinner this year, we caught up with this year’s Richard C. Holbrooke awardee Humane Borders.

Humane Borders is a Tucson-based non-profit that was founded in 2000 with a mission of saving lives and creating a just and humane border. With the tireless support of dedicated volunteers, Humane Borders operates several dozen permitted water stations in the Arizona borderlands to prevent deaths in the desert from dehydration and exposure. The following Q&A is a modified version of our conversation with them.

Can you describe how and why Humane Borders was founded? How has the organization’s work or focus changed over time?

Humane Borders was founded in response to increasing numbers of migrant deaths on Arizona’s border with Mexico in the late 1990s. As a result of NAFTA– which flooded Mexico with cheap American corn and low paying maquila jobs–Mexicans lost their farms and businesses, couldn’t support their families, and sought work across the U.S. border. At the same time, Operation Gatekeeper, part of an enforcement strategy called “prevention through deterrence,” deliberately forced migrants away from border crossings in safe, populated areas and channeled them into treacherous, desolate areas of desert and mountain terrain where many lost their way and died. 

Our mission remains the same: to prevent migrant deaths in the desert and create a more just and humane border. Humane Borders places 55 gallon barrels of water along migrant routes in the Sonoran Desert to prevent migrant deaths. We have always hauled water to stations by any means necessary: we used to use wheelbarrows to get water to hard to reach places and today we use trucks outfitted with 300-gallon tanks, generators, and special hoses for drinking water. We perform our work both along the border wall, where we serve people seeking asylum, and in remote parts of the desert more than 50 miles north of the border, where we rarely encounter migrants. 

Humane Borders volunteer Jaime Cabrales fills a water barrel in the desert near Arivaca, Arizona, February 2023. Photo by Humane Borders.

Today about half of those seeking asylum are families with small children, and they’re coming from all over the world. It’s important to note that Humane Borders’ water is for everyone–it doesn’t matter what one’s citizenship is or if it’s someone presenting for asylum or a person journeying on their own. No one should die a horrible death in the desert because they don’t have clean, safe drinking water. Next to the air we breathe, water is what is most needed to sustain life. Access to water is a fundamental human right.

The once-friendly U.S./ Mexico border is now militarized and politicized, yet missing from the narrative is the humanitarian crisis that’s happening in our own backyard. News about the border is often filtered through a political lens that dehumanizes people and disregards human suffering. Humane Borders is increasing efforts to elevate the truth by sharing factual, firsthand information about migration from a humanitarian perspective, countering anti-immigrant myths and narratives. 

Education is a key part of the Humane Borders mission. We host interns, student and church groups, journalists, artists, and researchers on water runs to share the reality of what’s happening in the borderlands.

What are your primary lines of work right now? 

While delivering water in remote desert areas remains our primary mission, we have expanded our work to provide for the humanitarian needs of people waiting to be picked up by the Border Patrol after crossing the border. After the Biden administration lifted Title 42 in May 2023, tens of thousands of people crossed the border near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument between Lukeville, Arizona and Sonoyta, Sonora. Humane Borders responded by setting up six new water stations, doing water runs every day, and providing people with food, basic first aid– patching many blistered feet– and shaded canopies. As summer temperatures rose to 110 degrees, Humane Borders volunteers assisted hundreds of people who had crossed the border overnight and were walking miles down a dirt road to Border Patrol tents. Volunteers gave families with small children wet bandanas and cooled off pregnant women and small children in our air-conditioned truck while awaiting Border Patrol pickup, and flagged down Border Patrol for medical emergencies. 

Humane Borders volunteer Lynne Charles assists a child in cold, wet weather, December 2023, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Photo by Humane Borders.

In 2024, Humane Borders is working with other organizations to provide for migrant care in shelters in Sonoyta, Sonora. We continue to do weekly water runs to our water stations near Tucson, Organ Pipe, and Cabeza Prieta, and we’re currently expanding operations to Yuma, Arizona, where water is needed for people presenting at the wall. Additionally, we’re pursuing permits for water stations at several locations along the border wall east of Sasabe, Arizona–an isolated and dangerously rugged area where families are crossing and there is urgent need.

We also partner with the Pima County Medical Examiner to produce a searchable migrant death map of the Arizona borderlands. Viewers can see the exact location where each body has been found, with the name, age, and gender of the deceased (if known and family has been notified), date of discovery, and cause of death. We currently have 4,196 records in our database; each red dot on the death map represents a spot where one or more people died. Sadly, that number is increasing at a rate of about 200 deaths per year. Our hope is that by collecting and sharing this data, policymakers and the public will comprehend the extent of life lost on U.S soil and work to address it. 

Can you highlight the work and motivations of a few particular volunteers that stand out in the organization’s history? 

​​Before moving to Tucson, Humane Borders volunteer Sharon Ray taught classes in Ohio cornfields to migrant field workers and their children in Ohio. They related stories of robbery, assault, and abandonment in the desert, and told of heart-wrenching incidents of mistreatment at the hands of Border Patrol agents. But one student shared a story of the hope and joy they felt when they saw blue flags waving in the desert wind directing them to the lifesaving water put out by Humane Borders. These water stations not only helped some of her migrant students physically continue their journey, but also sustained them emotionally and spiritually, offering hope and attesting to the good of humanity.

Leti Iverson joined Humane Borders as a volunteer because of an image she saw during a slide presentation about the border at her church. At the time, Leti was too young to understand much of the presentation, but the image of a little girl’s shoe stuck with her. It was a shoe just like her own, and she wondered what happened to the girl who wore it. Did she make it? 

Dora Rodriguez, a Humane Borders board member and former chairwoman, is a survivor of the tragedy at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 1980, when 26 Salvadorans fleeing civil war were abandoned by their guide after crossing the border. Thirteen people, including three teen girls, died. Dora was just 19 years old; she recalls being near death when a Border Patrol agent found her and urged her to “stay with us.” Dora is a lifelong activist for migrant rights and most recently spent Easter Sunday along the Arizona border wall in the cold and rain to help people in need.   

Humane Borders’ Joel Smith carries flagpoles in the desert, Growler Valley, Arizona. The flags mark Humane Borders water stations and other water sources in remote parts of the Arizona desert. Photo by Humane Borders.

Can you share some stories of migrants you have helped? 

Volunteer Steve Saltonstall relates a story that unfolded at our Ross Mine water station, at the end of a remote, sometimes impassable dirt road in Arivaca, Arizona, 12 miles north of the border. One morning, lying under a tree near our water barrel, we found Norberto, a desperate, exhausted teenager. He’d walked and hitchhiked 2,000 miles from Las Margaritas, Mexico. Norberto’s goal was to reach his brother in Gadsden, 

Alabama, another 1,700 miles from where he lay. Norberto told how the Border Patrol had chased him all night, on horseback and ATVs, through groves of cholla cacti and dangerous ravines. Norberto had eluded them, but he said that he couldn’t go on and wanted to surrender. Steve gave water and food to Norberto, then walked to a paved highway and flagged down a Border Patrol truck. Norberto was sobbing as he was led away in handcuffs.

Gene O’Meara volunteers with Humane Borders and also works with the search and rescue organization Aguilas del Desierto. In 2021, responding to a request to search for the remains of a missing loved one, Gene and a group of other Aguilas combed an area in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness where the missing man was last seen. Upon discovering the man’s scattered remains, the Aguilas set about marking off the areas and doing the documentation work.

As they were making the long trek back to their starting point, Gene and his group saw a Customs Border Patrol helicopter hovering in the distance, and after walking toward the area, found an injured migrant sitting on a rock. Gene learned that a few days before, the Guatemalan had become separated from his group, and had suffered a broken leg. He had limped and crawled his way through the desert to reach one of the Customs Border Protection blue rescue beacons. He pushed the button to save his life, thereby alerting the Border Patrol helicopter. Gene, describing the scene, said, “Imagine his surprise when we suddenly appeared out of nowhere, handing him bottles of water, food, and protein bars.” Gene learned that the man was from Guatemala, where he had owned a small transportation business with one little bus.  Gangs had demanded money from him, and he had paid them to continue doing business. When he finally could not keep up with the demands for higher payments, the extortionists shot him. The man sobbed while telling this story, pointing to the scar where a bullet went through his chin and out through the cheek. He had thought taking his chances in crossing this deadly desert were better than staying where he was. Gene and the other Aguilas stayed with the man until two Border Patrol agents arrived by ATV, with a transport van to follow.

One day in September 2022, Humane Borders volunteers Rebecca Fowler, Mike Kreyche, and Tracey Ristow discovered Gabriel, a man from Oaxaca, Mexico, walking along a dirt road near the little town of Arivaca, some ten miles north of the border. Gabriel had been separated from his group, had been walking for five days, and had little water left. He didn’t know he had, at minimum, six additional days of walking to arrive in Tucson. Just a few hours later, the trio encountered 22-year-old Margarita from Veracruz. Lacking food and water and suffering from heat exhaustion, she was anxiously waiting under a tree for someone to help her out of the desert. Tracey and Mike remained with her while Rebecca drove to a place where she could get cell phone coverage to contact Border Patrol.

When cartel violence broke out in fall 2023 in the small border town of Sasabe, Mexico, Dora Rodriguez was at the border wall as terrified residents fleeing bullets and kidnappings entered through a section of wall that had been cut with a metal saw. Humane Borders, as well as other humanitarian groups, provided food, water, and comfort for Sasabe residents including a person in a wheelchair and a woman on crutches with two children. Dora helped console frightened men, women, and children and remained with them until they were transported by Border Patrol hours later. 

Meet Dora Rodriguez from Humane Borders in person at our 45th Anniversary Dinner as we recognize them for their tireless work in supporting those seeking safety.

If you’re interested in donating, volunteering, or learning more about the work of Humane Borders, visit humaneborders.org or email info@humaneborders.org. You can also follow Humane Borders on Instagram, Facebook or X (formerly known as Twitter).

Featured Image: A child’s shoe in front of Humane Borders water station, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 2023. Photo by Humane Borders.