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Blue water barrel's trip to NY museum honors work to end deadly Az treks

Humane Borders work included in Smithsonian international design exhibit

Rev. Robin Hoover, co-founder of Humane Borders, was smoking a cigarette outside the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York City. Past the intricate wooden doors to the design branch of the Smithsonian (housed in the former Upper East Side mansion of Andrew Carnegie), there was a private reception for the designers whose work was featured in a new exhibit.

When he went back in after his smoke break, Hoover asked the man at the door half-jokingly if there was any Scotch. The answer: “No, just wine.”

Hoover was at the tony event because a simple blue plastic water barrel, designed by members of the activist group to save migrants crossing the desert in southwestern Pima County, is part of an exhibit at the museum. "By the People: Designing a Better America" focuses on urban and resource issues in the developing world.

During the museum director’s toast to a packed lobby at the opening last week, Hoover, who was in the front row, answered his phone and made an unsuccessful attempt at whispering.

“Yes, dear – Are you here? – Are you at the front? – No, I’ll come out and get you – I’ll come out and get you.” His hushed conversation drew a few politely peeved glances before he jostled back through the crowd so he could sign in his guest.

Hoover, who’s been described as “part preacher, part immigration policy wonk, part salty-talkin' Texan,” may stick out a bit at Cooper Hewitt, but he’s no stranger to publicity. The work of Humane Borders has been featured in other museums, at national faith-based conventions and in universities on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

Plus, “I’ve been in about 25 documentaries,” Hoover added. Of “The Fence,” an HBO film from 2010 by Rory Kennedy, he said, “I helped produce that sucker. Most of it was filmed from the dashboard of my truck.”

Even so, Hoover said being featured at the NYC branch of the Smithsonian Institution is “kind of like an affirmation of life’s work, because other people are gonna know about it. People used to see it on the nightly news, but it’s a continuing story and this is one way of continuing it.”

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The exhibition features five dozen projects by designers, architects and organizations from around the country. Cooper Hewitt Director Caroline Baumann called the collection “awe-inspiring,” and said during her toast at the event, “design transforms lives and revitalizes communities.”

“Visitors will experience design as a catalyst for positive change and be motivated to take action themselves,” Baumann said before raising her glass of white wine to the audience. “Thank you and congratulations, designers.” (Hoover insisted that he isn’t, in fact, a designer).

For Humane Borders, the ethos of the exhibition takes on a heightened sense of urgency: people’s lives are at stake.

According to figures from the Pima County Medical Examiner and Border Patrol, 225 migrants were found dead in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert in 2010, mostly due to dehydration and exposure. Since 2001, the remains of about 2,600 people have been recovered from the desert.

Back in 2000, there were fewer deaths (19 recorded that year, according to Hoover), but the number was on the rise and Hoover, along with a group of others, wanted to do something about it.

“We didn’t know how to do what we were doing, so we had to invent it,” he said. The result was Humane Borders’ blue 65-gallon water barrels and 30-foot blue flags (which had to be trimmed down a bit to fit inside the museum).

The work of Humane Borders – like the work of those making the perilous journey – wasn’t easy.

“If you carry four jugs of water, that’s 32 pounds. And you walk five miles up a trail to set ‘em down for somebody else - that’s really puttin’ your money where your mouth is,” Hoover said.

Paul Fuschini, who was at the Cooper-Hewitt opening, worked with the group for over a decade and was there when the first water station on public land was installed in March 2001.

After that, Fuschini said, the project started snowballing. “We put up one water station and next thing you know we got another water station. Next thing you know another. It was so obvious when people were dying that something had to be done.”

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Since 2001, the group has distributed more than 100,000 gallons of water, and now operates 35 stations near dangerous routes where immigrants crossing the border illegally are likely to take.

Of his time working with Humane Borders, Fuschini added, “I was lucky: I never found a dead body.”

“I found two,” Hoover interjected matter-of-factly.

The group was created in 2000 as a response to the rising number of deaths in the Sonoran Desert. In March 2001, the group asked federal officials for a permit to place water barrels in the remote Cabeza Pieta National Wildlife Refugee. However, in April that permit was denied and a month later, 14 immigrants out a group of 26 perished in the desert from dehydration and exposure. 

Many of them had passed within three-quarters of a mile of the proposed station, said Hoover during a March announcement that the barrels would be included in the Smithsonian exhibit. He recently left Humane Borders to start Migrant Safety, another nonprofit focused on the border.

The incident fueled the humanitarian response and soon the group was able to deploy water stations using a network of agreements and permits with federal and local agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the city of Tucson, and Pima County.

When asked about his most memorable moment at Humane Borders, Hoover said, “The one that always comes to my heart, that brings tears to my eyes: The Yaqui, they do what’s called a deer dance and they wear deer antlers on their head. And it comes from a song that says ‘my heart longs for thee – referring to God – like the deer or the stag longs for the water.’ Three different times we’ve had deer antlers laid on top of our water stations.”

Fuschini, who was listening over the din of the crowd, added: “It makes up a lot for the times we find the bullet holes.”

Hoover, who is no longer involved with Humane Borders but continues advocating for migrant safety, has plenty of enemies. Mostly “Main Street Red State Republicans,” as he put it. “The Minutemen were a pain in the ass,” he added. “They helped push people into the worst part of the desert.”

And the Border Patrol? “Fuck ‘em,” Hoover said. “There’s a relationship, but we’re not friends.”

Along with Humane Border, the Tucson Samaritans and No More Deaths also distribute water, and volunteers with No More Deaths increasingly conduct rescue missions to find lost immigrants.

On the third floor of the Cooper Hewitt museum, the blue barrel on display was free of bullet holes — and deer antlers. Newer and bluer than the beat-up tank that had been deployed in the desert and was displayed by Hoover when he announced in the spring that the water barrels would be included in the exhibit, it was resting on a sturdy wooden stand with its own focused lighting and two small plaques describing where the water station was from and what it was used for.

Like those stationed in the desert southwest of Tucson, it was clearly labeled "AGUA."

“I think it’s incredibly important,” one museum visitor said. “People are struggling for a better life. To come here and not make it is horrific.”

In a more designer-esque analysis, she added: “As an ‘art’ piece, if you will: so simple, so direct, so on-point.”

Juanita Molina, Humane Borders’ current executive director, was also at the opening in New York.

“Being included in this exhibit was something that I think kind of gave us a certain momentum and hope in being acknowledged in a completely different way in another part of the country where the xenophobia and racism isn’t as present in our daily practice,” she said. “I think it’s a tremendous validation to feel that we are part of a larger social movement.”

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The pressing issue of deaths along the U.S.-Mexico boundary is the toughest part of her job at Humane Borders, Molina said. “Even coming over to the exhibit today I was getting emails from families looking for their loved ones,” she said.

Politics is another obstacle, especially during this year’s heated presidential election. “It’s just made the polarization of this issue more pronounced,” Molina said. “I find that people in our community are clinging to one side or the other of the debate.”

(Hoover also had some ideas about election rhetoric and border policy, calling Donald Trump a “horse’s butt,” Hillary Clinton “no better” and President Barack Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief.”)

Regardless of the election’s outcome, however, Humane Borders will remain on the front lines of what Molina and others have called a “migration crisis.”

“Unfortunately,” Molina said, “I think that this kind of advocacy will be needed for a long time.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for the Cooper Hewitt exhibit that includes the Humane Borders water barrel.

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Alex Gerald/TucsonSentinel.com

Hoover at the opening of a Cooper Hewitt design exhibit that includes a Humane Borders water tank.