Badlands: From Ground Zero of the Immigration Crisis Along the Mexican Border

Tougher border enforcement in California and Texas has spelled disaster for southern Arizona

Even before Krentz's murder, the Arizona political season already was becoming contentious, with immigration the top hot-button issue.

It's much uglier now.

Arizona politicians are trying to outdo each other with snarling anti-immigration soundbites—"Seal the border!" "Complete the danged fence!" "Ship 'em all home!"—everything short of endorsing the killing of would-be illegal aliens on sight.

This ominous government sign is on federal U.S. Forest Service land in the Coronado National Forest, near the sprawling Krentz Ranch north of Douglas.
Paul Rubin
This ominous government sign is on federal U.S. Forest Service land in the Coronado National Forest, near the sprawling Krentz Ranch north of Douglas.

To hear politicians and their kindred spirits on local and national radio talk shows, the U.S. government ought to be able to root out all the undocumented like rats on an ocean liner.

As if the 1,969-mile southern border really could be "sealed" from every last illegal alien and drug smuggler.

And that doesn't count the illegal aliens (the Pew Hispanic Center estimates about 5 million—about half of the estimated undocumented population) who entered the United States legally and simply overstayed their visas.

Ignacio "Nacho" Ibarra, a veteran journalist who has lived much of his life in Cochise County, says, "You have two versions of the American Dream butting right up against each other down here. One is 'I'm gonna find my fortune and do whatever it takes.' The other is 'My family and I built this ranch, and this is ours to do what we want with.'"

Ibarra's allusion to the natural clash between Mexican immigrants, in the first instance, and American citizens along the border, in the second, is keen.

But don't look to most Arizona pols for thoughtful dialogue on why so many Mexicans and others hunger to get to the United States, or how businesses will be able to find enough cheap labor to do menial (but essential) jobs, if and when the economy gets back on track.

All they want to talk about is that the tide of illegal immigration must be stemmed—now!—and that it is the federal government's duty to do it.

And, in a sense, they're right—because the feds have hung those living on Arizona's southern border out to dry with decades of ineffectual policies.

"I understand fully why illegal aliens break the rules," says T.J. Bonner, president of the San Diego-based National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents more than 12,000 agents. "As long as there's an opportunity for them to come across the border illegally and it's not too high a price to pay in terms of money or danger, they're going to do it. And even if it is highly dangerous—look at the hundreds of people who die every year—they try. People continue to cross, literally, by the millions. It speaks to their level of desperation, and that's something the U.S. government and a lot of the talking heads have never comprehended."

The growing schism over illegal immigration probably would come as no surprise to the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, 93-year-old president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.

A liberal who earned praise for his work during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, Hesburgh headed an immigration-reform commission convened by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

The panel recommended that the federal government take serious action to secure the border before embracing reforms that would allow more alien workers to enter the States legally and become citizens.

To Hesburgh, it wasn't just that it was wrong to open our borders willy-nilly to whoever happened along.

"What's going to happen if we don't act [to secure the border]," he warned in 1981, "is that a psychology will develop that says, 'Don't let anyone in.' Or, have the military round up those here illegally and push them across the border. . . . The nation needn't wait until we are faced with a choice between immigration chaos and closing the borders."

This is where Arizona is now.

One side uses broad strokes to depict illegal aliens as raping, pillaging, job-stealing, disease-carrying bogeymen responsible for our nation's immigration woes. Anyone opposed to any part of this view is usually dubbed a "leftist" member of the "open-borders crowd."

The other side, in the minority in Arizona, seeks "amnesty" and citizenship for the bulk undocumented migrants now in this country. Those opposed to this view are generally tarred as "racists" or "nativists."

But most people on the border in Cochise County grow weary of the debate.

They agree and disagree with both sides.

To them, the immigration problem is a nagging part of everyday life—and they are profoundly frustrated with the U.S. government's continued inability to improve their situation.

For some residents, it's about an unrelenting fear of who may be tucked away in the arroyos on their land or who may be breaking into their homes.

The fear didn't start with Krentz's murder—though the tragedy exacerbated the sense of doom that many ranchers and other border residents were feeling, discussing and praying about for years.

"I'm always looking, and I always carry a rifle," says Rich Winkler, a cattle rancher who lives with his wife, Mary, at the base of the forbidding Peloncillo Mountains on the Arizona/New Mexico line, about 20 miles north of the Mexico border.

"There could be someone in the barn or behind a rock. You can't get sloppy with it. That's when they'll get you."

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