Last month I had the opportunity to tour southern Arizona with a small group led by our own Jerry Kammer, who lived and wrote there for many years and whose passion for the region is contagious. Through his connections, we were given intimate perspectives on the border situation from those who face it on a daily basis.
Starting in Tucson we completed a circular route that included stops in Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas, Sierra Vista, Naco, the Coronado National Forest, and Nogales. One of the most striking aspects of the region is the land itself. The vast expanse of high desert near Douglas can overwhelm. Farther west, where the terrain rises in elevation and becomes less arid, grasslands proliferate. The Huachuca Mountains and wilderness areas form imposing natural barriers along the border. For most of the year everything bakes under a penetrating sun.
The character of the land evokes a feeling of strength and independence so much a part of the nostalgia for the Old West. These qualities still seem present among the locals, many of whom just want to be left alone. But this has become increasingly difficult given the dramatic increase in illegal crossings. One rancher told us there have been more than 500,000 apprehensions on his 14,000 acre ranch over the last 19 years. This absurd sounding claim was supported by accounts we received from border patrolmen, law enforcement, and local journalists.
Highly sophisticated human-smuggling and drug cartels now control most of the crossings and their influence has brought an increase in traffic and violence. A journalist told us that decades ago it was not uncommon for locals to provide food and shelter for the occasional illegal aliens who would pass through. But today border residents fear for their safety. Ranchers have been killed during encounters on their land. One said he refuses to back down from confrontations but is not naïve of what is likely to eventually happen if things continue to escalate.
The ruthlessness of the cartels is well known. A border patrolman described how one recently hired several workers to dig a tunnel underneath the fence at Douglas and when the job was finished they executed all the workers. The same agent said he no longer goes into Mexico because it is just too dangerous. Those who carry drug loads into the country or who pay human smugglers thousands of dollars to get themselves across safely are routinely exploited. Many are raped or robbed or just left to die of dehydration. We heard the story of one illegal alien, who had wandered for days before being discovered only three miles from the border by a resident who took him into her home. He explained that he was headed for Chicago, which he was told was only a short walk across the border. After she showed him a map he broke into tears.
The response to all this by the federal government has been inadequate. Programs that have proven effective go understaffed or are cut altogether. A consistent commitment to enforcement does not exist among the leadership at the Department of Homeland Security. Border Patrol union representatives told us that one of their primary responsibilities is to protect the rank and file who resist the imperatives to placate special interests and do their job. In order to get promoted agents must adopt the political agenda. During our time on the border we were told repeatedly that the reason we saw so many border patrol vehicles guarding the area was because they knew we were visiting from Washington.
Despite the constant dangers and disruptions, the folks who live along the border are not the fanatics and bigots that the press makes them out to be. To the contrary, they are reasonable people who have exhibited remarkable patience in the throes of prolonged upheaval. And speaking with them you get the sense that they have been abandoned by their government. The willful disregard of our immigration law by the political class has had many devastating consequences. One of which has been to jeopardize the safety of citizens along the Southwest border. Yet they remain resilient.