YUHA DESERT, Calif. — If there's any local official who can take credit for the layers of steel fencing dividing the hills of Tijuana from San Diego, it's Rep. Duncan Hunter. The conservative congressman has focused a large portion of his 22-year career on trying to seal the border with Mexico.
The imposing fences have thwarted many undocumented migrants, but they have also pushed the flow of illegal immigration east to the deserts and mountains of Imperial County. In this rugged land, more than 400 migrants in the last seven years have succumbed to suffocating heat, bone-chilling cold and other dangers.
To human rights activists and immigration advocates, the deaths are proof that the border crackdown promoted by Hunter and other officials is misguided and inhumane.
So it has been a seemingly incongruous and surprising turn of events that has delivered the activists a new ally--John Hunter, the Republican congressman's brother.
Disturbed by the border crackdown's human toll, the younger Hunter began lugging gallon jugs of water out to the desert two years ago, hoping they would be found in time by desperate immigrants.
Today, his Water Station project has turned into a weekly spring and summer ritual that draws as many as 100 volunteers. And John Hunter's brother has become one of the project's strongest supporters. The congressman even helped get permits to set up the aid stations on federal land.
To some human rights advocates, Duncan Hunter's endorsement of the border aid program is a strange anomaly from the man they blame for helping make crossings more dangerous in the first place. The congressman considers his actions all of a piece: A fortified border, he says, need not be a deadly one.
John Hunter tries to stay out of the politics. Although it took him some time to convince skeptics that his relief efforts are sincere, the younger Hunter said all he wants to do is stop people from dying.
"It's a very ironic situation," said Enrique Morones, a former executive of the San Diego Padres, who helps run the Water Station project. "His brother is putting up a wall. And he's saving the lives of people trying to cross in the most dangerous areas, because of that wall."
Those who know the Hunter brothers said that, although the impulses that drive them appear to be at odds, both have something in common.
"Both Duncan and John are very public-spirited," said state Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), who has volunteered on John's project. "They just took very different approaches on this one. It's like the yin and the yang."
The brothers grew up on a ranch outside Riverside, along with three other siblings, children of a housing developer who was active in local Republican politics. Despite their eight-year age difference, the two were good friends who hunted and did chores together.
Duncan went from a stint in the Army in Vietnam to law school and then to legal aid work in San Diego's working-class Barrio Logan. Once in Congress, he joined a cadre of young legislators rallying around Newt Gingrich.
Meanwhile, John spent a year in the West Texas desert prospecting for uranium after college before earning a doctorate in particle physics and working on satellite technology at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Now, he's a toy inventor.
The younger Hunter described himself as a "George Bush kind of conservative" who is largely apolitical, other than some door-knocking for his brother Duncan in 1980. Calling himself the "classic" distracted scientist, John Hunter said he didn't think much about border issues until he began reading about the number of immigrants dying in Imperial County. He was horrified.
"Nobody was doing anything," said the 46-year-old, who lives north of San Diego in Poway. "If they were registered voters, everyone and their mothers would be out saving them."
John told Duncan about his plan to set up water stations in the desert, and the congressman helped secure permits from the Bureau of Land Management.
"When people are dying of thirst in the desert, you don't step over their bodies," Duncan Hunter, 54, said in an interview.
The congressman said there is nothing contradictory about his support for saving immigrants and his pursuit of stronger border enforcement.
"The best service you can do for border security and for would-be illegal immigrants is to stop them at the border before they travel into this very harsh desert environment," he said.
John has mixed feelings about the border fencing, saying it has helped keep out drug dealers and smugglers. But at the same time, the measure has exacted a severe human cost, he said.
"I don't want to put up a Berlin Wall next to Mexico," he said.
Their differences have led to some interesting discussions at family gatherings, both said. But neither brother likes to talk publicly about where he parts views with the other.
"Duncan's a great brother," John said.
"John is a very big-hearted person," Duncan said.