Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In a border town, ranchers face an immigrant tide on their own

With illegal border-crossers coming by the hundreds each day, local

Rancher Roger Barnett remembers the day his brother, Donald, left his pickup running while checking a stretch of barbed-wire fence. When Donald heard a noise, he ran back to find some 30 illegal immigrants piling into the truck.

"They thought he was their driver who was giving them a ride," says Roger Barnett, chuckling faintly as he patrols his sprawling property full of ocotillo, sagebrush, and thorny mesquite.

About these ads

Not long ago, migrants were as rare as rainstorms in this rugged corner of Arizona. Now they come by the dozen, and sometimes even by the hundred. It's one reason Barnett now patrols his property with a pistol and assault rifle.

Some may find his solution extreme, but it is representative of the deep and increasing level of disaffection among many residents here. In the past, they might have simply asked for more Border Patrol agents or bigger fences. But today, with more immigrants being forced into rural areas, Barnett and others are taking up arms to enforce their own brand of justice.

"I'm not a vigilante, I'm just protecting my property," says Barnett, who estimates that he and his brother have turned over 1,000 illegal immigrants in six months. "Our country is not taking care of us. So if your government doesn't take care of you, you have to take care of yourself."

With tougher Border Patrol operations taking effect in California and Texas, Douglas has fast become the busiest illegal crossing point along the US-Mexico border. Currently, one-third of all captured illegal immigrants in the nation are caught in the Border Patrol sector that includes Douglas, and for most folks here, this is not a welcome distinction.

Some, like Barnett, are demanding that military troops be sent in to secure the border. Others in this mostly Hispanic town call for more US aid to Mexico, or for punishing the employers who lure undocumented workers.

But while few agree on the solutions, just about everyone agrees that something needs to be done - quickly - before this influx in Douglas takes a violent turn.

"This is a serious problem, it's an international problem," says Mayor Ray Borane. "The community of Douglas isn't going to be able to solve this problem alone. I'm afraid there's going to be a tragedy here" if increasing numbers of migrants and frustrated property owners clash.

About these ads

INS response

In a nod to these concerns, a US government official wrote a letter to Mayor Borane May 14 saying the Immigration and Naturalization Service would provide "a full response" to his pleas for help combatting illegal immigration. He has suggested renewing a program to bring guest workers into the US from Mexico, and deputizing local law officers to enforce federal immigration laws.

From a historical perspective, all of this might seem just another chapter in Douglas's Wild West heritage. Just a few miles to the north, there's the mountain range where Geronimo made his last stand. To the west, there's the aptly named town of Tombstone, where Wyatt Earp enforced his own brand of justice. And right along the border between Douglas and Agua Prieta, Mexico, there's a long 10-foot-deep trench where 20,000 US Army troops held Pancho Villa at bay.

A nasty turn

But locals say the sudden influx of migrants has ushered in a nasty change of mood to this once quiet border town, where fender-benders and birthdays still make front-page news. Last month, the Border Patrol captured more than 20,000 undocumented migrants in Douglas alone. That's about half of all captures in the Tucson sector, which includes Douglas and Nogales. And it's 6,000 more people than actually live in Douglas year-round. Some folks have literally taken up arms for protection - one resident says she has been burglarized more than 50 times.

"These are not bad people; these are good people who are overwhelmed," says the Rev. Robert Carney, pastor of St. Lukes Catholic Church here.

Like many people here, Mr. Carney feels caught between his sympathy for the overrun ranchers and the desperate campesinos who are willing to risk capture or starvation for a better life in the US. Many of these residents say they favor such "long-term solutions" as reviving the bracero guest-worker programs backed by the mayor. Others want to encourage economic and political reform in Mexico so that campesinos have a reason to stay home, or increase US aid to Honduras and Nicaragua, which are still rebuilding after last year's hurricane Mitch.

The influx has taken a toll not just on Douglas, but on its Mexican neighbor, Agua Prieta, as well. Six months ago, this town had 120,000 residents. Today, with hundreds of newcomers arriving each day, the population may be up to 180,000 or more. Some are coming to work in the bustling maquiladora factories, making everything from seat belts to kites. Others are just passing through.

One of these men, Pedro Rodriguez, is trying to get back to his construction job in Los Angeles after visiting his family in Mexico.

"I've been captured by the Border Patrol three times this week," says the tall twentysomething, who is standing outside a line of hotels that have sprung up to feed and house would-be migrants. "But I will try again tonight."

More and more guns

The tenacity of Mr. Rodriguez is something that lifelong Douglas native Ginny Jordn can well understand. "If you had children and you had to feed them, you'd do it too," says Ms. Jordn, a social worker. She also sympathizes with the ranchers and homeowners, but she worries about the growing presence of guns.

"People are emotional, and we all have knee-jerk reactions. If you have a gun, and use it, you can't take it back."

In the short term, Douglas and other Arizona border towns may have to wait for federal relief, since the Border Patrol is having difficulty attracting the 1,000 new recruits Congress has authorized for each year. That's why Mayor Borane has called on the federal government to cross-train local sheriffs and police officers.

Also, Borane is planning to file lawsuits against US food and clothing manufacturers that persistently hire illegal immigrants, in an effort to recoup the town's costs of illegal immigration.

But for Larry Vance, a Douglas homeowner who lives just one-quarter mile from the border, all of this is inadequate. He says he wants nothing less than the National Guard to hold off what he considers a full-fledged invasion by Mexicans and others.

"I don't know how much longer people around here are going to take it," says Mr. Vance, who is co-chairman of the newly founded local group Cochise County Concerned Citizens.

As if on cue, a dozen migrants dash across Vance's property about 50 yards away in the twilight. At first, Vance just stares at them. Finally he says, "Those people right there, I don't know nothing about them. All I know is they're human beings from somewhere else, and they have no loyalty to the country, and they're moving by my home." He pauses, and his barking dogs fill up the silence. "Let me call the Border Patrol right now."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.