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Weekly Alibi Border Crisis

Vigilante Ranchers Hunt Illegal Immigrants in Arizona

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 26, 2000:  Located in an isolated rural area along the Mexican border in Arizona, Cochise County recently experienced a dramatic increase in the number of illegal immigrants crossing through the county on their way to migrant jobs in California and elsewhere. Over the past few years, thousands of additional Border Patrol agents have been assigned to patrol the U.S./Mexico border in Texas and California. But the increase in agents hasn't stopped the flood of migrants; the flood has merely shifted to Arizona.

More than 350,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in southern Arizona over the last year. Landowners in Cochise County have been faced with an influx of Mexican migrants that they never experienced in the past. In recent months, local ranchers have become quite vocal in expressing their anger regarding this situation. One particular rancher, Roger Barnett, has been quoted in newspapers around the globe, saying that the sport of choice among dozens of ranchers in Cochise County has become stalking undocumented migrants with the aid of dogs and assault rifles, rounding them up at gunpoint, and handing them over to local Border Patrol agents.

A few weeks ago, a brochure from a mysterious group called the "Neighborhood Ranch Watch" was mailed out all over the U.S. It asked people to join the Arizona ranchers for some "fun in the sun," hunting immigrants with the aid of halogen spotlights and infrared scopes.

As might be expected, this border crisis has aggravated relations between the U.S. and Mexico. The Mexican press has printed numerous cover stories denouncing the vigilante ranchers. Many commentators have suggested that the Klan and other racist militia types might be involved. Rosario Green, the Mexican Foreign Minister, has claimed that two illegal immigrants have been killed and several more injured by the ranchers' roving posses. Green announced recently that Mexico has retained lawyers in the United States for a possible lawsuit over human rights violations committed by the ranchers.

Many believe that relations between the two countries haven't been this bad since the Mexican-American War over 150 years ago. On May 6, delegates to the 39th Mexico-U.S. Interparliamentary Meeting in Puebla, Mexico, agreed to create a binational commission to investigate the existence of private migrant hunters in Arizona. The crisis brings up several issues, not the least of which is how best to monitor a 2,000-mile border between two very different countries--one from the First World, the other from the Third.

Taking the Law into Your Own Hands

"An invasion is going on," says Roger Barnett. "Our federal government is allowing another country to invade its borders. It's not an armed invasion, but it's an invasion." According to Barnett, the U.S. government treats the public like a cultivated mushroom, keeping its own people in the dark about a crisis they have a right to know about. "If the public knew what was going on, they'd be down here with guns, fast, to defend our borders."

Barnett has become enraged by the broken fences, trash, and general property damage caused by the large numbers of Mexicans crossing through his property every week. "These people don't care for their fellow man," he says. "Immigrants don't respect nobody's property rights." He insists that, in a way, he feels sorry for the migrants, but he wants them off his land, and he's willing to use force if he has to. "I carry a gun at all times," he says. "Anyone who doesn't is a fool. I'd take a life, you bet ya, if they were going to harm me in any way. You're your own law enforcement out here."

The rancher says he doesn't know who sent out the brochure. He also says he doesn't know of any Mexicans killed or injured by ranchers. And if the Klan is involved, he doesn't want anything to do with them: "They're not my type of people."

Barnett believes that the main problem is the U.S. government. "The U.S. shouldn't be listening to any Third World narco dictatorship," he says. He believes the Democratic Party allows illegal immigrants to enter the country so they can vote for the party. When asked how illegal immigrants manage to register to vote, Barnett says, "They have their ways."

The ultimate solution, according to Barnett, is for Mexico to help its own people. Barnett also wants the feds to start enforcing employer sanctions. Even more important, he believes that the Border Patrol should massively increase the number of agents patrolling the Arizona border. "The way they have [the Border Patrol forces] deployed," Barnett says, "it's not going to stop it."

Down in Douglas

Not everyone in Arizona agrees with Barnett's prescription for the problem. Ray Borane is the mayor of Douglas, Cochise County's border town. He's a friend of Barnett, but, regarding the border crisis, the two men couldn't be more different. Borane has been quite vocal in expressing his contrary opinions to the press.

"Roger thinks the military ought to be put down here," Borane says. "I don't." The mayor sees the crisis as a labor issue, not an immigration issue. "We keep throwing billions into the border problem, but employers continue to hire the migrants. These jobs are necessary in this country. They perpetuate this economy. We need to quit putting on this charade at the border."

Borane points out that the migrant workers benefit both the Mexican economy and the U.S. economy. According to the mayor, the amount of money migrants bring back to Mexico is second only to the money coming into the country from Mexico's booming tourism industry. Likewise, if the Mexican migrant workers were banned from the U.S., all sorts of domestic industries would collapse. For these reasons, Borane believes that the U.S. government should find some way to legalize and regulate the influx of Mexican migrant workers.

Borane is especially worried by the infamous "Neighborhood Ranch Watch" brochure. "I think initially it was a serious movement," he says. "But when they saw there was such a huge backlash, they backed off. The one thing we don't need is militia and vigilante types coming down here to solve our problems."

The Tortilla Curtain

In 1996, Congress passed legislation mandating 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents per year through 2001. According to official Border Patrol statistics, the number of agents has more than doubled since 1994. Charlie Klingberg, a Border Patrol agent in the public information office for the Tucson sector, says that several dozen new agents have recently been assigned to the Douglas station; right now, there are a total of 1,400 agents in the Tucson sector, a region covering most of Arizona's border with Mexico.

"The biggest concern is everybody's safety," Klingberg says, "the safety of the Border Patrol agents, the local residents and the Mexicans." Though Roger Barnett insists that he's still rounding up illegal immigrants in huge numbers, Klingberg says that he knows of no incidences of ranchers detaining anyone in the last several weeks. "We're trying to educate people," says Klingberg, "and show them that an agent's job is difficult and dangerous." The Border Patrol has told ranchers to notify them if they find illegal immigrants crossing their lands--and to not take the law into their own hands.

From a Mexican perspective, however, increasing the number of Border Patrol agents may not be the best way to protect the safety of Mexican nationals. Many Mexicans believe that the Border Patrol has engaged in their own violations of human rights, and there is substantial evidence to support that view. In 1998, Amnesty International released a report detailing the long and troubled history of the Border Patrol's operations along the U.S./Mexico border. The human rights organization uncovered allegations of beatings, denial of food and water, sexual abuse of both men and women, denial of medical attention and abusive, racially derogatory and unprofessional conduct perpetrated by Border Patrol agents. People who reported that they were mistreated were almost exclusively of Latin American descent. In some cases, the report stated, Border Patrol behavior resulted in the wrongful deportation of legal aliens.

The 1996 legislation that required increasing the number of Border Patrol agents has put a lot of pressure on the agency. Many commentators have expressed fears that the lack of experience of new recruits could result in additional human rights abuses along the border.

Shutting the Golden Door

The United States has always taken an ambiguous stance toward the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door." On the one hand, our immigrant nation has often embraced fresh reserves of labor, ideas and cultures from foreign lands. At the same time, immigrant-bashing has a better claim to being the national pastime than baseball.

Whatever the ultimate solution to this latest border crisis, as George Kouros, director of the Border Information and Outreach Service in Silver City, says, "The illegal immigrants are not the source of the problem. They're not a national security threat. For every one they frighten off, two more will come. And they will not stop coming." When there are jobs that need to be filled and no Americans to fill them, Mexicans without jobs will continue to find new ways to cross the border. Despite all the political scapegoating of immigrants that has occurred in recent years, most economists who have studied the issue agree that immigrants provide a net economic benefit to our country. It seems that shutting the golden door--or in this case, the dusty track--could be detrimental to this country's health.

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