- 'Border Clash' - TIME Magazine By Tim McGirk Douglas
June 26th, 2000 > A few years back, when Mexicans would stagger out
of the desert onto Helen Hoffman's cattle ranch, her family would set up
a card table for the parched visitors and give them gallons of water, grub
and maybe a few days' >work.
- But not anymore. Every morning now, when her husband
Robert checks the cattle on their 500-acre spread near the border at Douglas,
Ariz., he sees "heads poppin' up all over in the mesquite bushes,"
says Helen. Several times, bands of illegal immigrants tried to steal their
pick-up and break into the Hoffmans' house under the tall cottonwoods.
- A few nights ago, Robert, 84, had settled in front of
the TV when he had the prickly sensation that somebody was watching him.
He looked up and saw four pairs of eyes staring through the window. It
took a while for Robert, who is still recovering from a triple coronary
bypass, to fetch the shotgun now kept by the door, and by that time, the
prowlers had vanished. Since then, Helen seldom ventures into the yard,
even in daylight, without her >9-mm pistol.
- >"I'm no racist. Why, I have a Mexican daughter-in-law,"
says Helen, 78, a stocky woman with the tenacity of a snapping turtle.
"But we have a major invasion happening in this country, and nobody
seems to give a damn."
- This anger against the growing flood of 1 million illegal
immigrants a year is rising fast among independent-spirited, gun-toting
residents in the borderlands of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Over the
past three years, the number of illegals streaming across the border has
remained constant. They come from Mexico, where a third of the people
live on $2 a day or less, and from other countries where poverty, national
disasters and political upheaval unleash an exodus of refugees. Since
the early 1990s, the border patrol has partly sealed the California frontier
with its operations "Hold the Line" and "Gatekeeper."
But they did not deter the illegal immigrants and their "coyote"
smugglers for long.
- Instead, the crackdown has driven them into the Southwestern
deserts, where much of the land adjacent to the unfenced U.S.-Mexican border
is privately owned by ranchers and rural residents. It is these people,
like the Hoffmans, who are on the front line of the Clinton Administration's
losing battle to secure America's southern frontier.
- For many Americans who believe citizens have the right
to defend their property and privacy with firearms, these ranchers are
true patriots, doing a job the government is too weak-kneed to carry out.
- Ranchers such as Roger Barnett from Douglas, who boasts
of capturing illegals on his property--his record is 170 in a day--have
become the heroes of anti-immigration activists around the country. Such
groups as the American Patrol and the California Coalition for Immigration
Reform often liken the ranchers in their literature to the Minutemen of
the American Revolution.
- But that propaganda can also carry a nasty edge. Flyers
circulated in Douglas by an "R.U.A. Freeman" offer volunteers
a chance to join in "ole western individualism" and help ranchers
nab aliens. Envoys from the Ku Klux Klan put in an appearance last month
at a town meeting in Sierra Vista, Ariz., hoping to offer solidarity but
were chased off by locals who don't want their cause, which they see as
a pragmatic one, tainted by zealots and adventurers who seem to want to
hunt down poor Mexican families for sport. "I get three or four calls
a week from volunteers--damned if a lot of 'em aren't women--from all over
the country," says Barnett, 57, a rugged, athletic man in blue jeans.
"But I tell 'em they'd do better by writing to their Congressmen."
- Not surprisingly, the ranchers' militancy is provoking
a Mexican backlash. Two weeks ago, Carlos Ibarra Perez, a retired oil
worker in >Reynosa, across the line from Texas, announced a $10,000
reward for the first person who kills a U.S. border-patrol agent. In
the ensuing uproar, Ibarra withdrew his bounty, but it shows the depth
of hostility growing between the U.S. and its neighbor.
- This "red alert" issue, as the Mexicans see
it, was raised in Washington talks last Friday between Mexican President
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon and President Clinton. Both men agreed to
tighten their side of the common border. Says Mexico's Foreign Secretary
Rosario Green: "This is racist behavior that violates all international
- The conflict is becoming deadly. So far this year, three
immigrants have been killed and seven others have been wounded in showdowns
on the U.S. side of the border. Violence has come as the days get warmer.
On May 14, Mexican Eusebio de Haro, 22, was shot in the groin and left
bleeding to death after he and a companion approached a rancher near Bracketville,
Texas, pleading for a drink of water. Near the Arizona border town of
Sasabe, Miguel Angel Palafox, 20, had eluded the border patrol on May 21
and was heading north through hills covered with saguaro cactus--his dream
was to reach Phoenix--when he was spotted by two horsemen dressed in black.One
of them pulled out a rifle and shot Palafox in the neck. The youth wrapped
his shirt around the wound and crawled back to Mexico in 115[degree]F heat.
"I thought I was going to die in the desert. There wasn't a single
tree for shade," says Palafox.
- Once across the Mexican border, Palafox dragged himself
another mile before reaching a farmhouse, where he got help. The two riders
have yet to be found. Along the 80-mile stretch of border in Arizona's
Cochise County, there have been 25 incidents since April 1999 in which
armed private citizens rounded up dozens of suspected illegals. Most of
these actions involved rancher Barnett and his brother Donald, 54, who
patrol a 22,000-acre spread about four miles from the Mexican border.
It's mesquite country, with sparse grass and sandy creeks that are perfect
trails for the coyotes and their clients, who pay $800 apiece to reach
Phoenix, $1,500 to Chicago.
- Along the way, says Roger Barnett, they cut fences and
let out cattle, deliberately break water pumps and litter the pasture with
garbage that chokes the cattle. Sometimes the coyotes and drug smugglers
crossing through are armed. "Out here," says Cochise County
sheriff Larry Dever, "any rancher would be a fool who isn't prepared
to defend himself." But the sheriff insists that so far, no "vigilante
action" against the illegals has taken place in Cochise.
- With his binoculars, an M-16 automatic rifle and his
sheepdog Mikey, Barnett sometimes tracks a group of illegals for miles,
following their footprints in the sand and bits of clothing snagged on
the mesquite thorns. In the summer it's harder for his dog to track them;
the incandescent heat sears away their scent. "They move across the
desert like a centipede, 40 or 50 people at a time," says Barnett.
Once he catches them, Barnett radios the border patrol to cart them off
his land. "You always get one or two that are defiant," says
Barnett, who chuckles, remembering an incident a few weeks back. "One
fellow tried to get up and walk away, saying we're not Immigration. So
I slammed him back down and took his photo. 'Why'd you do that?' the illegal
says, all surprised. 'Because we want you to go home with a before picture
and an after picture--that is, after we beat the s___ outta you.' You can
bet he started behavin' then."
- Such antics have made Barnett a lot of enemies on both
sides of the border. He is demonized as a vigilante bogeyman by the Mexican
press, threatened with criminal charges by Hispanic human-rights groups
in Tucson, Ariz. And the U.S. Attorney's office in Tucson is keeping
a file open on Barnett for possible prosecution, according to police sources.
Barnett has to watch his step in other ways too. Across the border in
Agua Prieta, a dusty boomtown of cheap hotels, cantinas and shops specializing
in plastic >water jugs and can openers for the illegals' desert odyssey,
Barnett is considered bad for business. More than 1.2 million illegals--Mexicans,
Central Americans, Chinese and a smattering of Europeans--poured through
here last year.
- Yet during May and June, the number of aliens wanting
to cross has fallen considerably, and some coyotes think this may be Barnett's
fault; his notoriety has spread throughout Mexico. As a result, many illegals
are heading west, to Nogales, Ariz. In the Azueta plaza where the coyotes
meet their pollos (chickens), the smugglers say a bounty has been put on
Barnett's head. Barnett was warned of these threats by the Cochise sheriff
but says, "I'll just watch my back and keep doin' what I think is
- In Tucson, border patrol officials predict that the number
of apprehensions this year will beat last year's record high of 470,000.
Still, for every illegal who is caught, at least two others slip through
to jobs in the U.S. that nobody else wants, as meatpackers, fruit pickers,
gardeners and motel Chambermaids. Even feisty ranchers like Barnett admit
that one way of keeping trespassers off his land is to legalize entry to
more immigrants. "If we decide we need them for jobs, it should be
through a legal port of entry--not across my land," he says.
- The other option, one favored by 89% of Arizona residents,
according to a recent poll, is to enlist the military's help in patrolling
the border. But Douglas Mayor Ray Borane thinks this would raise tensions
between the U.S. and Mexico and lead to more deaths. "Do we really
need troops down here to fight ladies coming through with infants in their
arms?" he asks. The U.S. military is barred by a post-Civil War
law from taking on civilian law-enforcement duties except in a national
emergency. Unless Washington lawmakers decide either to get tougher with
illegal immigration or to fill the labor force by opening the frontier
gates a little wider, the U.S. ranchers will keep up their rough sport
with their unwanted trespassers.
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