Politics & Policy

We’Re Thinking About Tomorrow

Illegal immigration hits home.

I got an e-mail today from somewhere in southern Arizona ranch country that captured the uncertainty, anger, and fear that illegal immigration brings to border residents every day.

The message told of a wildfire in the Chiricahua Mountains, probably started by illegals. It’s common. A group busts the line, finds a secluded spot to cook a meal, and then, because they don’t live here and have no stake in what they might destroy, they don’t put the fire out when they continue trekking north.

My home state has had many such blazes over the years. Right now, after one of the driest winters on record and with fire season looming, everybody awaits the inevitable, hoping to get to the flames before they burn out of control.

This is what people elsewhere in the country don’t understand. This is what politicians in Washington, presently in such an uproar over the issue, don’t understand. On the ground in Arizona, illegal immigration isn’t about long-term fixes like a guest worker program. It’s about tomorrow.

It’s about getting up in the morning and making sure that the property you’ve acquired over the course of years, and sometimes generations, remains intact. It’s about praying that your possessions are still in your house when you come home.

Susie Morales lives west of Nogales in a remote canyon crisscrossed by smuggling trails. From her kitchen door, she can look out and sees burreros–drug mules–backpacking marijuana into the country. They’re close enough to wink at her.

Her house has been broken into many times, and she had to protect it–it looks like a fort, with security doors, window bars, and an expensive alarm system. At suppertime, when her husband is outside talking to passing illegals, she keeps a rifle on the table while she cooks.

As maddening as that insecurity is, what bothers Susie most is that she can no longer live the way she was raised. For generations on this border, residents have shown generosity and kindness to passersby. But rampant drug-running and illegal immigration have driven a stake through the heart of that way of life. The invasion has brutalized border country, and for Susie, who is fifth generation, that means making the heart-breaking decision to stop offering food and water to illegals. They come in hordes now, and the danger has grown too great.

“I can’t describe how upsetting it is to have to change who I am,” says Susie. “Why, after 50 years, should I have to face this moral conflict?”

In Cochise County, rancher John Ladd fights to keep what he owns. With 10 1/2 miles of land abutting the Mexican line, he watches the border war every day through his living room window.

In the early 2000s, the Border Patrol averaged 350 arrests every 24 hours on his property, including 700 in a single night. One morning Ladd walked into his living room and found a Oaxacan Indian girl on his couch. She’d walked in his front door and gone to sleep.

Last month a delegation of congressmen came to Ladd’s ranch for an up-close look at his nightmare. They saw Border Patrol lights that don’t work and cameras that are frequently broken for lack of a $15 circuit board that keeps blowing.

The agency used to keep a supply on hand, but a Border Patrol official told them they couldn’t do that anymore, and must buy them as needed. This takes weeks, so cameras sit idle.

How can a bureaucracy that can’t change a light bulb–so to speak–run a massive guest-worker program?

It gets worse. Along wide stretches of Ladd’s land, the international fence is simply gone, either washed out by floods or cut down by invaders. The congressmen stared slack-jawed at the site.

It mostly makes Ladd angry, because the Swiss-cheese barrier allows Mexican and American livestock to mingle as never before, and that means they can spread disease that could put him out of business.

A migrant beginning in Brazil, where foot-and-mouth disease is active and spreading, can arrive at Ladd’s fence in two days. If he’s carrying a meat snack that harbors the highly contagious and destructive FM virus, Ladd could be finished.

This scenario would affect much more than the livelihood of this one rancher. If the wrong disease migrates north, either accidentally or through bio-terrorism, the whole country stands to suffer. An FM outbreak, for example, would require the overnight shutdown of America’s beef export market, which has the potential to cause an economic and social catastrophe.

In the face of this real threat, and in the face of ten years of Ladd’s complaints, the feds have been utterly paralyzed, unable even to decide which agency has the responsibility to fix the fence.

“I’ve got a great life,” says the 50-year-old Ladd, whose family homesteaded his San Jose Ranch in 1896. “I’m proud of it and I cherish it, but this crap is driving me nuts. I feel cheated by my government, the country I love. They’re telling me to go screw myself.”

The great illegal immigration debate consuming Washington has done little to raise the hopes of people like Ladd and Susie Morales. They know that the uncertainty, anger, and fear they’ve lived with for years will likely continue, and that surviving on the Arizona border, and living on the land to which they were born, means having to worry about tomorrow.

Leo W. Banks writes from Tucson.

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