For Pastor, Helping Migrants Is a Matter of Faith

Migrants making their way through Mexico toward the United States navigate a minefield of dangers and bureaucracy. This week, Courthouse News takes a look at what they face and the people who help them along the way.

Robin Hoover (right) stands with Laura Garciandia, a Mexico City journalist who is helping him educate migrants heading toward the United States, on the track that carries La Bestia, a famed train the migrants ride north through Mexico. (Brad Poole / CNS)

MEXICO CITY (CN) – Migrant advocate and longtime easer of migrant suffering Rev. Robin Hoover of Tucson, Arizona, never makes a firm plan when he goes to Mexico.

“I can’t,” he said in the courtyard of Hotel Maria Christina, his home base when he is in the capital city of our southern neighbor. “I never know who’s going to be around or what will happen when.”

Hoover, 66, has worked for more than three decades as a pastor and advocate for migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and Arizona. He has testified before federal lawmakers of both nations.

He went south of the border this time to launch a pilot education program for people, mostly from Central America, heading toward the United States.

He brought three video screens to be installed in shelters, to loop information PowerPoint-style so families and lone travelers alike will know what to expect as they approach and cross the border into the United States. The aim is to keep them alive at a minimum but healthy and safe overall, and to teach them about their rights in the U.S. and Mexico.

Armed with a Texas Christian University bachelor’s degree in religion and journalism and a master’s in divinity with an emphasis on social ethics from the same school, then a Texas Tech University doctorate in political science, Hoover has assailed governments, nonprofits and churches with his relentless message of human rights and dignity for more than 30 years.

“You look around for weeping, sorrowful, hurting, marginalized people, and for me those were migrants. I want to be an advocate for people who have no advocates,” said Hoover, who in 2006 became the only non-Mexican to ever win Mexico’s National Human Rights Award.

Hoover recently approached the back door of the Human Rights Commission offices in Mexico City without a staff ID, waving aside any protestation that he would be questioned, because he knows everyone there. The guard didn’t know him and asked him to go through the building to the front desk.

“They’ve never asked for an ID before,” Hoover said, walking briskly up to give a familiar hug to a woman who sells snacks at the employee entrance to the building. She knew him, if the guard didn’t. Inside the offices of the Human Rights Commission, everyone did know him.

Hoover was first ordained as a minister in 1980. By 1986 he was focusing on migration in south Texas, and by 1991 he had made it a career. His faith is deeply linked to his work, and he attributes 100 percent of his motivation to help migrants to his faith and theology although he retired from the ministry in 2013.

Robin Hoover (right) explains to a migrant shelter operator in Toluca, Mexico, how his video systems will educate migrants heading to the U.S. (Brad Poole / CNS)

In 1986, Hoover founded his first nonprofit organization, Westaid, in Texas. Westaid connected churches providing food for the poor. He went on to launch several nonprofits aimed at helping migrants. In 2000, he founded Human Borders with the goal of reducing the number of deaths among migrants crossing the brutally hot Arizona and California deserts.

Humane Borders’ main goal was simple: Prevent people from dying in the desert by strategically leaving water in places where migrants had died. Migration – the inevitable geographic ebb and flow of human populations – is a fact we should approach from an ethical, humanitarian stance, not just economic or political, Hoover says.

“There is no commercial, market-driven, for-profit model that’s going to help these people. There are very few government services,” he said, so he links nonprofit organizations and church congregations to get the job done.

Hoover has clashed with federal land management agencies, the U.S. Border Patrol and others including the Tohono O’odham Nation, a southern Arizona tribe that straddles the border southwest of Tucson, over where to place water stations, but he has never refused dialogue with anyone. Some governments have been supportive, when they see the deaths of migrants in public health terms, he said.

“In so far as our work is complementary with government entities, they will help us,” Hoover said.

The governing board of Pima County, a sprawling expanse of Sonoran Desert roughly the size of New Hampshire, has long been supportive of Hoover’s efforts. They began funding water stations more than a decade ago.

Hoover sees basic differences between the U.S. and Mexican approach to human rights. The Mexican government includes human rights in its constitution. Ours is based on freedom.

“Just being free doesn’t necessarily motivate you to go out and help someone,” Hoover said.

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