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Border Blues: They Keep Coming and Coming, and Citizens Are at Wits' End
by JOHN J. MILLER

 

 

'You want to hear about my worst day on the ranch?" asks Ruth Evelyn Cowan. "I lost 10,000 gallons of water because some Mexican broke a valve off one of my tanks trying to get a drink. Another one left a gate open and four of my cattle wandered ten miles away. They're worth about $2,500 apiece and we had to spend hours finding them. And then someone else drove a truck across my land and knocked over a fence in two places." She pauses, exasperated. "All that happened in just 24 hours. But you know what? We have to deal with problems like these every day, and it's been going on for years."

 

That's life in Arizona's Cochise County, where Cowan believes that she's spent $50,000 undoing the damage done to her property by illegal aliens since 1999. And that figure doesn't include her biggest expense: the enormous amount of time she and her employees have put into the repairs, from fixing cut fences to picking up all the trash left behind by thousands of people streaming across her ranchland.

 

Cowan knew the ranching life would be difficult when she quit her job as an airline stewardess to take up the family business. But she had no idea how hard, or that something other than drought or low prices would cause so much of the hardship. She was looking forward to rural life in southeastern Arizona. Instead, she found herself living in what fellow rancher Gary McBride calls "the illegal-alien capital of the world."

 

Nobody knows how many people sneak across the Mexican border into Cochise County; recent estimates put the number between 500,000 and 1.5 million annually. Little towns like Douglas and Naco are now main thoroughfares for people determined to enter the United States without green cards. Their migration has wreaked havoc on not just Cowan's land, but the whole region. Ranchers fight a daily battle against property destruction. The sheriff's office struggles to plug holes left unfilled by the federal Border Patrol. Local hospitals cut services to keep from going broke. And nobody who doesn't live there seems to know -- or care -- about what's going on.

 

There's nothing especially new about illegal immigration in Cochise County, a dry landscape of scrubland and mountains where Geronimo and the Apaches made their last stand against the U.S. Army at the end of the 19th century. Mexicans have crossed over for generations. But the flow was only a trickle until recently, when the federal government made a conscious decision to let the trickle become a flood. Ever since, the people of Cochise County have drowned in a problem not of their own making.

 

The Census Bureau estimates that 8 million illegal aliens were living permanently in the U.S. in 2000, up from 3.5 million ten years earlier. As the public clamored for the government to do something about this rising tide during the 1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service made a fateful decision for the residents of Cochise County. It chose to increase the Border Patrol's presence at El Paso and San Diego, two popular points of entry, and also to experiment with new enforcement techniques. The strategy worked wonders -- at least for El Paso and San Diego, where illegal immigration fell noticeably; but a balloon that's squeezed in one place expands in another, and the INS essentially succeeded merely in pushing the crossings away from these areas. Illegal immigration didn't really decline at all. Instead, Cochise County became a favorite corridor to El Norte.

 

One of the channels was the backyard of Cindy Hayostek, in the border town of Douglas. A year ago, she spent a few mornings counting the illegal aliens who jumped her fence. "I figure that 4,000 people were doing it over the course of 12 months," she says. "And that's probably a low estimate."

 

Hayostek is lucky -- she has only a backyard to worry about, and the local Border Patrol agents have made an effort to keep the aliens from overrunning townies like her. (She says fewer are coming now.) The ranchers who live outside Douglas, however, own thousands of acres of land. It's a vast and empty region -- Cochise County is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, but only 120,000 people live there -- and a tempting one to disappear into. The aliens generally cross the border in small groups of fewer than a dozen, though sometimes their numbers can swell. They're often guided by professional smugglers called "coyotes," who are skilled at evading the Border Patrol. On a February night, I went out with the Border Patrol and saw agents apprehend a group of 116 illegal aliens between Douglas and Bisbee, about a quarter-mile from the border. One of the men was a sheet-metal worker trying to get back to his job in Los Angeles. Others were bound for Atlanta and New York.

 

It's impossible not to feel sympathy for these foreigners. After all, they come to the U.S. primarily for jobs -- better ones than they can find at home, and ones that American employers are glad to give them. The federal government isn't especially serious about keeping them out, either. "The aliens face a danger zone that's maybe 20 or 25 miles deep," says Dave Stoddard, a retired Border Patrol agent with extensive experience in Cochise County. "Once they escape it, they're home free. Nobody is going to catch them." By some estimates, the Border Patrol nabs only one of every four or five crossers. Those who are caught go back to their home countries. For the majority this is Mexico, and most of them are just dumped back across the border into Sonora, where they're free to cross again. Anybody who really wants to make it into the U.S. is going to succeed, even if it takes a few tries.

 

There are plenty of ways into Cochise County, many of them hazardous. In January, police found five dead Mexicans at the bottom of a coal car. The best routes, however, are through the wide-open spaces of the countryside, where there aren't so many Border Patrol agents sitting in parked SUVs under bright lights on moveable towers. Tramping into the wilderness carries plenty of risks. Every year, scores of aliens die from dehydration, especially during the searing summer months. Most carry jugs of water, along with plastic bags of food and other necessities. And they don't abide by the camper's ethic of packing out what they pack in. "The trash is unbelievable," says Stoddard. "You see acres with every square foot polluted by empty water bottles, discarded clothing, and feces."

 

The migration's impact goes far beyond littering. Ranchers control their property and their herds with fences, and these are now routinely cut or knocked down by passing aliens. "I spend three days a week picking up trash and two days fixing fences," says rancher George Morin. The aliens are a menace to orderly ranch life. They leave gates open, letting out cattle and horses, bust waterlines when they're thirsty, and kill barking dogs that threaten to expose their routes.

 

County sheriff Larry Dever estimates that 37 percent of his budget goes to dealing with illegal aliens. Just about everybody in the region can describe times when he has been approached by aliens asking favors, such as a drink of water or the use of a phone. "Most of them are good people and don't mean any harm," says Richard Humphries, a retired police officer who homeschools his daughters. "But there are thousands of them coming through, and I've been threatened before. It's bad enough that I worry every time my girls play outside. One of the reasons I moved here was to get away from that."

 

Most of the men carry guns around their property, but this is no surprise in a place where the 911 response times can reach an hour or two. The difference in Cochise County is the women. They also carry guns -- around their property, in the glove compartments of their cars, by their bedsides -- and many of them have started doing it in the last five or six years. "I don't feel safe without one anymore," says Hannah Siegel, a rancher's wife who lives 15 miles from the border. "I carry one with me all the time," confesses Virginia Martinez, a Hereford resident. "I do it because of the aliens. They're everywhere."

 

B. J. Kuykendall, whose ranch is on the edge of Swisshelm Mountain near Elfrida, knows the potential consequences of not having a gun. She and her granddaughter were driving on their property one day when they encountered a group of Mexicans in another vehicle. "One of them pointed at me and made obscene hand gestures," she recalls. "Then he let out this evil laugh, and in Spanish said, 'I want you and I will get you.'" Kuykendall raced her pickup truck down a bouncy dirt road with the men in pursuit and escaped only because she made a sharp turn off the road and hid behind mesquite trees.

 

Some aren't so fortunate -- and even guns don't always help. Last July, Bill Burns of Portal, Ariz., had a .22-caliber revolver in his hand when a pair of illegal aliens burst into his kitchen and attacked him. Burns was knocked unconscious and later treated for a cut to his cheek and a stab wound in his abdomen. One year earlier, he was assaulted with a two-by-four in his horse barn and knocked unconscious. When his wife found him three hours later, he had to be airlifted to a hospital, where he was treated for a collapsed lung and several broken bones. Six years ago, retired military chaplain Edwin York was lucky to survive a scrape in which he, his wife, and his 80-year-old mother-in-law were tied and blindfolded by a gang of illegal aliens who proceeded to rob them. "We're on the front lines of an invasion," says York. "After spending 28 years trying to protect my country, I didn't realize I would still have to do it again in my retirement."

 

Nobody wants to become a victim of crime, of course, but the residents of Cochise County have an added incentive to avoid injury: The quality of health care in their area has declined because of the influx of aliens. Federal law requires hospitals to provide medical service to anybody who needs it regardless of his ability to pay. In Douglas, many illegal aliens get into the country by jumping over the wall along the border right in town. Those who break their ankles or legs doing it -- a not uncommon occurrence -- are then entitled to free treatment. In the year 2000, in fact, Douglas's single hospital went bankrupt, in part because of all the unpaid bills. (It never closed its doors, though, and today is run by different owners.)

 

Illegal aliens are excessively prone to injuries because of the risks they take. When drivers hook up with groups of aliens they're supposed to transport, they will stuff as many as possible into their vehicles - - and then do things like drive down primitive dirt roads at high speeds with no headlights in the darkness. "Have you ever seen eleven people jammed into a Camaro?" asks James Dickson, CEO of Copper Queen Community Hospital in Bisbee. "It's a real mess when there's a crash."

 

Dickson, of course, is one of the people who must find a way to pay the bills for these people when there's an accident. His budget problems have grown so severe that he recently shut down his hospital's nursing home. "What really gets me is that others make a profit off us," he says. "I remember one of our patients, an illegal alien working as a housemaid, calling her boss in Queens to tell her she would need a few extra days to get there because we were treating her for something. She eventually went on her way and never paid her medical bills. It's like we're subsidizing cheap employment for some rich lady in New York City."

 

The policies of federal agencies aggravate these costs. When the Border Patrol stumbles upon injured aliens, it makes a practice of ensuring that the aliens receive immediate medical attention but not taking them into formal custody -- because then it gets out of paying for their treatment. It will even drop off Mexicans at a Cochise County emergency room, all the while maintaining a fiction about how its agents did not have an opportunity to investigate their legal status. In Douglas, this happened 225 times last year. "Most of the time, the aliens just walk right out after we've treated them," says Debra Thornby, a nurse in Douglas. "We don't see the Border Patrol again -- at least not until their next drop-off."

 

There are no trauma centers in Cochise County, so people with major injuries are shipped off to Tucson, often on helicopter rides that can cost as much as $10,000 per trip. "We wrote off $6 million in uncompensated services to illegal aliens last year," says John Duval, chief operating officer of the University Medical Center in Tucson. Last fall, the state legislature went into special session after Tucson's two trauma centers announced that they would close because they could no longer absorb these losses. Now the hospitals have stopgap funding through the end of this year, but it remains unclear how they will survive, over the long term, having to eat these expenses.

 

Border-state politicians have lobbied for federal reimbursements, and Washington does earmark millions of dollars each year to cover the costs of illegal aliens. But it doesn't come anywhere near full coverage -- the Bush administration's current budget even calls for some cuts -- and there's no way it ever could. What's a rancher going to do: send an invoice to the INS every time he finds that someone has cut through a barbed-wire fence?

 

What the government can do is become more serious about policing the border. Cochise County, in fact, has seen a massive increase in Border Patrol. There used to be only 40 agents assigned to Douglas; today, there are 80 agents on each shift, with three shifts a day. The service also has a big supply of high-tech gadgetry. Human traffic into Arizona seems to have dropped in recent months; the Border Patrol's apprehensions are down from where they were a year ago, which might indicate that fewer people are crossing over. If true, that's partly because of the Border Patrol's increased efforts and mostly because of the recession's tightened labor market. But Cochise County will still see hundreds of thousands of new illegal aliens this year. The busy season is just getting underway -- springtime is best for crossing, because the weather is neither too hot nor too cold -- and the improving economy may speed migration even more. A few people don't even think the entries are down. "They're still coming," says Ron Sanders, who ran the Border Patrol's Tucson sector until he retired three years ago. "You have to understand what the Border Patrol does. When it makes a lot of arrests, it claims success for making a lot of arrests. When it doesn't make a lot of arrests, it also claims success because it says there are fewer crossings. No matter what happens, it declares victory."

 

What's dispiriting to many Cochise County residents is how the rest of the country winks at illegal immigration. Lawmakers in California recently made it possible for illegal aliens to pay in-state tuition at public universities. Tyson Foods smuggled illegal aliens into the country so they could work at 15 processing plants in nine states; Tyson executives were indicted for this last December. The Bush administration last year flirted with an amnesty for illegal aliens; nobody in the White House has talked about it much since September 11, but Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt continue to promote the idea. (In November, Gephardt even called them "very good citizens," when they are not even legal residents.) How many of those taking advantage of California's generosity, working for Tyson, or eligible for a future amnesty also have dropped trash, cut fences, or visited the emergency room in Cochise County?

 

The fact that so many locals say they'd like to see the border militarized is a testament to their deep frustration. "I once told our congressman, Jim Kolbe, that we should do this," says Linda Morin, the wife of rancher George Morin. "He asked me if I wanted to have tanks in my front yard, thinking that would shut me up. I said, 'Hell, yeah. Put one there and I'll feed the whole crew dinner every night.'" There are obvious drawbacks to this: The Marines, of course, aren't trained in law enforcement, nor should they be. Other options are equally unappealing: Some members of Congress have proposed setting up a national-ID system and requiring employers to check with the government before hiring anybody. This might deny jobs to illegal aliens, at least until they figured out how to game it. More likely, it would just become a tremendous inconvenience for everybody except the people it's meant to inconvenience.

 

One alternative worth considering is a new guest-worker program that would make it possible for illegal aliens to legalize their status on a temporary basis and work in the U.S., but have part of their pay withheld until they've returned home. The government historically has run programs along these lines and a few small ones remain in place. Improving the situation in Cochise County, however, would require a large expansion of the programs. They would have to include not just the farm jobs traditionally associated with migrant work, but also the service industry that currently employs so many illegal aliens. "There's nothing as permanent as a temporary worker," warns Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, pointing out that the experience of guest-worker programs shows that many of them never leave. Then again, the aliens who come through Cochise County aren't leaving either. Perhaps the immigration-control crowd could strike a deal: They'll stomach a new guest-worker program in exchange for a shift in legal-immigration policy, such as phasing out the brother- sister legal admissions category that makes possible so much of the family-based chain migration they oppose.

 

In the meantime, a growing number of locals are finding life in Cochise County intolerable. "I've got metal bars on my windows, I carry a gun on walks with my wife, and I take a two-way radio when I go looking at the stars from my own backyard," says York, the former military chaplain. "This is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let me tell you something: It sure doesn't feel like the land of the free in Cochise County, but it may take an act of bravery to live here."
 
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