WLS students organize “border water drop” for migrants in Southern California desert

Members of Whittier Law School's Immigration Advocacy Society traveled to the desert outside the small town of Ocotillo to refill water stations for migrants moving north.

In Southern California’s hot and dry Imperial Valley, there are places where the vast expanse of sandy soil and desert vegetation is broken up by specks of blue. But these seemingly random bits of color on the tan valley floor are no accident.

The specks of blue are barrels, and they hold something simple yet potentially lifesaving: jugs of water. This stretch of California desert touches the Mexican border, and the barrels are water stations placed there to help undocumented migrants making the trek north.

Those water stations regularly need refilling, so on a sunny Saturday in March a group of five students from Whittier Law School’s Immigration Advocacy Society traveled to the desert outside the small town of Ocotillo to render meaningful service.

“This work is important because it saves lives,” says Arlene Carrillo, president of the Immigration Advocacy Society. “It is not done for recognition, not for fame, or money. They do it because they care about people.”

Peter Reich, Whittier Law’s associate dean for academic affairs and an expert on U.S./Mexico relations, accompanied the group.

Professor Peter Reich, Whittier Law’s associate dean for academic affairs and an expert on U.S./Mexico relations, joined members of Whittier Law School's Immigration Advocacy Society traveled to the desert outside the small town of Ocotillo to refill water stations for migrants moving north.

“This joint faculty-student activity was a wonderful way to apply Whittier Law School’s values of social engagement,” he says. “As we drove back along the border after having set up the water stations we saw the flags at each one pass by, showing how much we had accomplished in a very short time.”

Members of Whittier Law School's Immigration Advocacy Society traveled to the desert outside the small town of Ocotillo to refill water stations for migrants moving north.

To organize the service project, the Immigration Advocacy Society partnered with Water Stations, the nonprofit organization that maintains the drop sites.

“This project is all about helping people,” Carrillo says. “Volunteers set up and maintain the water stations. They have good relations with border patrol agents in the area, and they pay for permits for all their stations.”

Between March and October, volunteers travel to the desert every other weekend and refill the water stations. They clean up the surrounding area in an effort to leave the desert cleaner than they found it. The water is for anyone who needs it, not just migrants passing through. That could include a lost hiker or a dirt biker whose motorcycle has broken down.

Members of Whittier Law School's Immigration Advocacy Society traveled to the desert outside the small town of Ocotillo to refill water stations for migrants moving north.

Carrillo notes the many challenges associated with a project like this. The Water Stations organization survives on donations and volunteer labor. All the money raised pays for water, permits, materials, and maintenance on vehicles. To help with funding, Carrillo has started a GoFundMe page on behalf of the Immigration Advocacy Society. There are also the risks of desert terrain, like rattlesnakes, cacti, and scorching heat.

But ultimately, Carrillo says, that all pales in comparison to the dangers faced by migrants who choose to make a journey fraught with both political implications and physical perils.

“I tear up at the thought of people my age—or any age—in the desert, lost and thirsty,” she says. “Death by dehydration sounds terrible. I can’t fault a person for seeking a better life, especially if they are willing to risk their lives for just a chance. I am a first-generation American with strong roots in Mexico. I am blessed to have the opportunities that I have and the ability and passion to study law. I just want to use my blessings to bless others.”

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