Saving lives in the desert unites couple divided over Trump

Water Station volunteers brett Staulbaum and rob Fryer carry barrels into carrizo canyon in the Anza-borrego Desert in June. John Hunter, a supporter of President Donald trump, founded the group about 20 years ago.

OCOTILLO, Calif. — When news about President Donald Trump flickers across their television, Laura and John Hunter know that one of them needs to leave the room.

They'd rather not quarrel about how Trump is handling an issue they both care about deeply: immigration.

John is part of a conservative political dynasty: His older brother, Duncan Lee Hunter, represented California in Congress from 1981 to 2009 and pushed — successfully — for the "triple fencing" that separates the cities of Tijuana and San Diego. His nephew is Rep. Duncan Duane Hunter, who succeeded his father and was indicted on corruption charges in August of last year.

John believes in Trump. Laura is a Mexican immigrant who dismisses Trump as a "despicable human being."

But there's one mission that continues to bind them.

About once a month, as they have for 19 years, they travel into the desert east of San Diego with a handful of volunteers who are focused on one of the grimmest aspects of U.S. immigration policy — the deaths of those who are trying to cross the border illegally. The volunteers fill and maintain more than 100 water stations scattered along the sun-bleached California borderlands.

The Hunters' journeys into the desert are one of the main reasons their marriage has survived the dramatic collision of emotions that the 45th American president inspires in each of them.

John said he doesn't see a conflict between his desire to save the lives of people who are trying to cross the border illegally and his support for a president who has described the same people as rapists, criminals and gang members.

"People were dying during the Clinton era, in the Bush era, in the Barack era," he said. "They are still dying in the Trump era."

And they still desperately need water.

The couple met 19 years ago in the low desert of Imperial County, shortly after John had launched his ambitious Water Station project. He was, he said, apolitical on the topic of illegal immigration.

The barrier promoted by his brother had resulted in a decrease in illegal immigration in the San Ysidro area of San Diego, but immigrants who were desperately trying to cross the border were pushed to the east, into unforgiving desert terrain. Thousands of them have died in eastern California and Arizona in the past 25 years.

Laura had read about the venture in a local newspaper and signed on as a volunteer. Their political differences were immediately apparent, but they both opposed abortion, and the water stations, with their potential to save lives, seemed to be an extension of that belief. After a couple of years, their friendship became somethingmore; they started dating and eventually married.

John, 63, is a toy inventor who earned a doctorate in particle physics and worked on satellite technology at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Laura, 72, is a retired elementary school teacher who raised three girls — mostly on her own — along the border regions of San Diego and Mexicali, Mexico.

In their own way, the Hunters reflect the diversity of the Water Station group, which consists of about 10 core volunteers who come together twice a month in Ocotillo, a tiny community in Imperial County. A few are apolitical. At least four — including John Hunter — lean to the right. The rest — mostly the younger ones — are left-leaning activists.

"On this one topic — saving lives in the desert — you could say we are all liberals," John said. "I just consider it being normal. When temps hit 115, people focus on the basics of survival, and petty differences are ignored."

From the start, DuncanHunter, 71, supported his brother's water project and even helped him obtain permits to set up stations on land operated by the Bureau of Land Management. There is no contradiction, he says, between his support for his brother's mission to save immigrant lives and his desire for tough border enforcement.

"The fact that you don't have a secure border leads to people coming to the border and dying of dehydration or exposure in the desert," the former congressman said. "If you had 200 high school kids a year drowning in a canal, what would you do? You'd fence off the canal. … You keep people from dying."

When John first launched his project, migrant deaths were on the rise, hitting a peak of 96 in the El Centro Sector — a 70-mile stretch of border in the Imperial Valley — in fiscal year 2001, according to Border Patrol data. For a time, fatalities declined in the area, but last year, 17 people trying to cross illegally died, and that had the Hunters worried.

They had hoped to retire by now, leaving the work in the hands of a younger generation. But there just aren't enough volunteers.

John's next project is trying to raise money to place cell towers in an area near the Arizona border that currently doesn't have service. Immigrant deaths there have escalated as the California border has been fortified.

Laura thinks it's a good idea. "I think the situation in the desert or the mountains … is not about immigration. It's about life or death and we try to help a little bit," she said. "Whatever we can do to stop people from dying."

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.