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In Search of Water With Border Kindness

The California-based nonprofit provides food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and legal aid to those displaced along the United States-Mexico border
James Cordero
water warriors, hiking team

A Border Kindness group heads out just after sunrise. An average group is “usually around 8 to 12 people with an average hike length of 5 to 10 miles,” Cordero says.

James Cordero

Every week a group of volunteers heads to the eastern reaches of San Diego County, somewhere in the mountains, past the end of the big fence. They’re with Border Kindness, a California-based nonprofit that provides food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and legal aid to asylum-seekers, migrants, refugees, and the displaced along the United States-Mexico border. The San Diego chapter, run by James Cordero and his fiancé Jacqueline Arellano, handles the area’s water drops, which require arduous hikes into the deserts where migrants cross by foot, regardless of whether there’s searing summer temperatures or snow.

Border Kindness volunteers leave water, food, and clothing in canyons, mountains, and desert flats known to be frequented both by migrants and Customs and Border Protection (CBP, border patrol). They also remove trash from through-hikers and migrants who leave their personal effects along the rocks. The team has come across just about every likely scenario from border patrol apprehensions to encountering the remains of people who lost their lives in the final stretch of what was almost surely a long journey throughout the Americas.

water warriors, keychain

A keychain left behind with the image of la Virgen de Guadalupe—patron saint of both the Americas and vulnerable people. It’s a common image seen on items belonging to migrants.

James Cordero

Aside from witnessing and experiencing trauma in real-time, there are other risks: in 2019 a volunteer with an organization doing similar water drops in Arizona was charged with two counts of felony harboring and one count of conspiracy. In the end, he went free with a hung jury, but the legal risks of unsanctioned humanitarian aid are real.

“We provide humanitarian aid for many reasons,” Cordero says. “We have family that has immigrated to the United States. We want to help minimize the suffering and death that occurs all too frequently along the US-Mexico border. When you have a serious issue presented in front of you, it becomes a moral responsibility to do what you can to help. That is what we do.”

water warriors, land

A view from the top of a mountain ridge shows the canyons where migrants have to travel to try to evade border patrol. “Some caches are deposited over 5,000ft of elevation in the mountains, but most drop sites are less than 1,000ft, some below sea level,” Cordero says.

James Cordero

water warriors, hat in bush

A sombrero lays on top of a bush in a very windy area. “We presume the hat blew off the head of someone traveling through,” Cordero says.

James Cordero

water warriors, holding jug

Border Kindness Water Drop co-director James Cordero poses with a consumed gallon of water he left behind on a previous drop. The volunteers pick up trash, including discarded water bottles, as they deposit supply caches along their hiking routes.

James Cordero

water warriors, supplies

Border Kindness volunteers leave a supply cache consisting of gallons of water, canned food, and sun-protective clothing.

James Cordero

water warriors, snake

A juvenile rattlesnake, coiled up, camouflages into the decomposed granite and sandy wash believed to be transited by migrants.

James Cordero

water warriors, water jug

Cordero scribbled a bible verse from Romans 12:13: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” It is assumed that the vast majority of migrants are culturally familiar with Catholicism.

James Cordero

water warriors, camo motion detector

A camouflaged CBP motion detection surveillance camera was recently installed in a highly migrant-traveled corridor to track human movement.

James Cordero

water warriors, truck

A border patrol truck races toward the Border Kindness Water Drop team. After realizing who they were, they let them be.

James Cordero

water warriors, baby clothes

Children’s clothes strewn about a hillside, at the site of a border patrol apprehension, shows the reality of who’s actually crossing the desert.

James Cordero

water warriors, hiker

A Border Kindness group scales a rocky mountainside, scouting for traces of recent migrant travel.

James Cordero

By Jackie Bryant

Jackie is San Diego Magazine's content strategist. Prior to that, she was its managing editor. Before her SDM career, she was a long-time freelance journalist covering cannabis, food/restaurants, travel, labor, wine, spirits, arts & culture, design, and other topics. Her work has been selected twice for Best American Travel Writing, and she has won a variety of national and local awards for her writing and reporting.

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