Border fence’s devastating toll
It's slowed the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, but the price -- human and environmental -- has been costly
For the aid workers who found 14-year-old Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros in the Arizona desert, it is hardest to forget the little things, the beaded bracelet around a tiny wrist, the bright green sneakers, the pink-lined jacket, and the sweatpants with the word “Hollywood” across the backside. She was a wisp of a girl, barely 5 feet and 100 pounds, no match for the rough terrain or subfreezing temperatures.
No one can say for sure that Josseline died because of heightened security measures along the U.S. border with Mexico. Yet, to the volunteers who found her lying under a bush, her head resting on a rock in an unnamed creek bed, Josseline’s death was a predictable consequence of American policy, in particular, the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which mandated construction of enough fencing to cover about one-third of the U.S.–Mexico border across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The goal was to foil unlawful entries, especially by drug dealers and terrorists. Josseline was neither. A native of El Salvador, she was on the last leg of a 2,000-mile quest to reunite with her mother. She was, nonetheless, an illegal alien.
Josseline and her ten-year-old brother were among thousands of children who head north from Mexico unaccompanied by parents or relatives. The two were with a group of adults that had entered the U.S. near Sasabe, Arizona, probably through an unfenced area. The gaps in the fence are as strategically positioned as the fence itself, in this case routing Josseline’s group through the Tumacacori wilderness, a spiny, mountainous badland that poses a challenge to the most experienced hikers. Spanish soldiers had a name for places like this, El Despoblado, the emptiness.
Josseline’s group had been walking two days north of the border when the girl became violently ill. She insisted that her brother continue without her. What happened to her after that is a mystery. Dan Millis, a staff member of the Tucson office of the Sierra Club, came upon her body while he and other volunteers were putting out containers of water for thirsty migrants. By then Josseline had been separated from her group for several weeks. Her brother had been reunited with the family in California, and they had reported that she was missing, according to writer Margaret Regan who covered the story for the Tucson Citizen. It was winter and cold enough for snow to spot the Arizona mountainsides. Josseline’s weakened condition probably made her susceptible to hypothermia. It is tempting to think that such a death is relatively painless, but dying of exposure isn’t a matter of fading dreamily into a coma. Death by cold typically advances slowly from violent shivering to loss of motor skills. Victims become disoriented and often lose the ability to act rationally. With nighttime temperatures hovering around freezing, Josseline had taken off her shoes and both of the jackets she had been wearing. Once the body’s temperature approaches 90 degrees, the shivering may become convulsive, seizure-like. As the body temperature continues to drop, the victim loses consciousness. Breathing becomes irregular, signaling the onset of pulmonary edema and ultimately respiratory and cardiac failure.
In another era, Josseline’s death might have engraved itself on our imagination, like the missing kids whose faces were reproduced on milk cartons. As an illegal, though, Josseline stands little chance of achieving a martyr’s place in a society inclined to accord her a status once reserved for bastards. But if she is not to be remembered as an innocent victim of a merciless law, how should Josseline and others like her be remembered? As collateral damage? As criminals? Many won’t be remembered at all, their unidentifiable remains as desiccated as the bones of wild animals that have perished from the same harsh conditions. The naturalist Craig Childs, who has spent much of his life combing deserts of the Southwest for the half-buried tools, utensils, and other grave markers of the Paleo-Indians, describes the land as a vast cemetery: “It changes a place to know that it still has physical ancestry. … You feel the oldness in the ground. … I thought that if there were such things as ghosts, I was stirring them by passing through here.”
Since the early 1990s, when the first section of the modern border fence was built, we have reconsecrated the ground, increasing the population of the dead by about 6,000. As the fence and other defensive measures have made the arduous crossing even harder, the mortality rate has risen. By 2009, the risk of dying while crossing the border in Arizona was 17 times greater than it was a decade earlier, according to one analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, and since 2009, the mortality rate has nearly doubled. About 10 percent of the fatalities are children. Along Arizona’s border with Mexico, that can mean 18 to 25 children die each year. The body count is at best an educated guess, since many of the missing have never been found. We know more about the prehistoric dead than some of the more recent casualties whose only markers are cast-off clothing and empty water bottles.
* * *
Seen from a distance, the border fence is a tantalizing mirage, a piece of land art in the tradition of the Spiral Jetty or The Lightning Field, its concrete supports and steel-mesh panels rendered immaterial like a long, hard road that seems to liquefy in the harsh light. Up close, it’s more imposing, the apotheosis of a junkyard fence. In the history of cross-border insults, it ranks with Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, and the U.S. government’s Harmon Doctrine denying Mexico’s right to water from the Rio Grande or Colorado River. Only, in this case, injuries have been inflicted on the culture, commerce, and environment on both sides of the border. Design flaws in the fence have caused floods that cost lives and resulted in several million dollars of damage to homes and businesses in Arizona and Mexico. Mountains in one California wilderness were dynamited to make way for the fence. In Texas, private property has been seized, elsewhere ranches trashed, and everywhere wildlife habitat damaged and ancient migration routes blocked.
Border fortifications are likely to remain in place and even grow if many in Washington have their way. Under legislation that has passed the House, the authority of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol would be vastly expanded. The effects on people’s livelihoods, on topography, and on natural resources would be felt across an area larger than New England. The push for even more security is due in part to people’s misperception of what the fence is supposed to accomplish. Its apparent fragility is not a mirage, as evidenced by the ladders, the 149 tunnels, and the holes in the mesh panels that make long stretches of the fence look like a patchwork quilt. In 2010 alone, more than 4,000 holes were cut. Yet it was never meant to be an impenetrable barrier. Don’t mistake the fence for something it isn’t, then–Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Fox News five years ago: “I think the fence has come to assume a certain kind of symbolic significance, which should not obscure the fact [that sealing off the borders] is a much more complicated problem.”
All of the bluster during the Republican primary about building a double fence (Michele Bachmann), electrifying it (Herman Cain), or extending it the entire length of the 1,950-mile border (Mitt Romney) missed the point. The fence is simply one component in the militarization of the border, a $90 billion project that marshaled thousands of Border Patrol agents and National Guard, deployed manned aircraft and aerial drones, established military-style bases and a network of radio-transmission towers, and carved thousands of miles of new roads in national parks and wildlife refuges. In the end, it is a system quite different from what was originally envisioned. It is designed less to stop people from crossing the border illegally than to apprehend them once they have crossed; it slows them down and makes them easier to catch once they are in the United States.
The strategy is comparable to football’s prevent defense, in which the team playing defense doesn’t attempt to stop its opponents from crossing the 50-yard line but concentrates its efforts on preventing a touchdown. “A speed bump in the desert” is the way one Border Patrol official describes the fence. The Government Accountability Office reported in May that the strategy assumes that nearly 90 percent of apprehensions are going to be made after people have entered the country illegally. The Border Patrol put it this way: “Illegal traffic will be deterred or forced over more hostile terrain less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” The fence funnels people into some of the roughest country along the border, into places like the Tumacacori wilderness, Josseline’s final resting place. A more cynical take on the policy is that apprehensions drive budgets, and if you deter people from crossing the border, you won’t apprehend as many. As one official puts it, “Agencies thrive on numbers.”
One look at the groups of travelers gathered on the Mexican side and it’s clear from their flimsy sneakers, cotton pullovers, and quart-sized water bottles that most are unprepared for the 20 to 30 miles of hellish terrain that lies ahead, where temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees in summer and often drop below freezing in winter. Anyone who has hiked in the desert knows how deceiving it can be. Terrain that appears flat from a distance turns out to be a steeply furrowed maze of arroyos and canyons, cliffs and cul-de-sacs. Long-distance trekkers cache water and nonperishable food before heading out, as it is almost impossible to carry sufficient quantities of either. Many migrants give themselves up when they become too sick or weak to go on, or they are abandoned by coyotes, their paid guides. You see the ones who can’t continue standing meekly at highway checkpoints, waiting to be processed and deported.
* * *
There have been fences along the border with Mexico for more than a century. They just weren’t designed to keep people out. Strung with barbed wire, the first ones were erected to segregate American and Mexican cattle. The federal government didn’t start putting up pedestrian fences until 1990. The first one was built in San Diego where the number of apprehensions was approaching 500,000 per year. The fence started at the Pacific Ocean and continued several miles inland. Sixteen years later, when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, the wave of migrants trying to sneak across from Mexico was beginning to recede. But in the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the specter of jihadists toting bombs across the desert and the more routine threat of Mexican drug gangs moving tons of product north provided the impetus to build what is there now. Today, a combination of pedestrian fence and vehicle barriers extends intermittently across 650 miles from Texas’s Rio Grande Valley to 1,300 feet out into the Pacific. The longest stretch is in Arizona where the illegal traffic has been heaviest in recent years.
From the beginning, the idea of walling off the border struck critics as an outdated approach to national security, a throwback to the era when we built a line of forts to protect the pioneers. It wasn’t the Berlin Wall we were re-creating but Fort Apache. As in olden days, soldiers patrol on horseback. Volunteer militiamen scour the hills for signs of invading campesinos. Along a particularly gnarly stretch of desert on Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Reservation, Indian scouts, known as Shadow Wolves, follow the trail of smugglers who wrap their shoes in fabric to cover their tracks as they guide migrants or transport drugs.
Two assessments of border security issued this year, one by the Congressional Research Service and the other by the Government Accountability Office, found that the Border Patrol has gained “effective control” of about 50 percent of the border with Mexico. Although the Border Patrol reports that it has caught 18 million illegal aliens since the mid-1990s, the number has plummeted in recent years, from 1.6 million in 2000 to 340,000 last year. At least for now, El Norte is no longer Mexico’s magnetic north. The Pew Hispanic Center reported a few months ago that the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed. The population of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the U.S. is almost one million fewer than it was five years ago. The report concluded: “The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill.” The causes are many: an uptick in Mexican employment, a sharp decline in that country’s birth rate, the scarcity of jobs in the U.S., and a record number of deportations under President Barack Obama. There is also the fear of tangling with the murderous drug cartels that control access to the border on the Mexican side.
The border fortifications have made a difference, though it is hard to gauge how much since the trend in illegal migration had been heading downward for five years before the Secure Fence Act was passed. Fencing the border has stopped some people. A 15- to 20-foot fall from its top to a graded road or concrete apron at its base is comparable to a plunge from a diving board into an empty swimming pool. The Border Patrol and local medical personnel have reported concussions, broken limbs, and other injuries serious enough to prevent the victims from venturing any farther into the U.S.
So far, the decline in the illegal-immigrant population has not made a difference in official policy. There have been few calls for the president to tear down the fence. Just the opposite. In Arizona, a campaign is under way to raise money to build an additional 200 miles of border fence. The Texas Department of Public Safety is launching a fleet of gunboats to patrol the Rio Grande, the river that forms the state’s border with Mexico. The Obama administration is preparing to build 14 more miles of fence in South Texas.
Obama made light of Republicans’ obsession with border security with a joke about moats and alligators. But he has deported twice as many people as George W. Bush did during his first term, while deploying 1,200 National Guard and doubling the size of the Border Patrol to 22,000. As CNN’s Paul Begala said: “President Obama has put more boots on the ground on the Mexican border than any president since Woodrow Wilson was chasing Pancho Villa.”
If the border has become a safer place—as crime statistics strongly suggest—it hasn’t become safe enough in the view of many members of Congress. Lately, they have been focusing on what they see as a particularly vulnerable component of Obama’s border policy—the environment. Congressional conservatives say environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act are limiting the Border Patrol’s access to borderlands frequented by migrants and smugglers. The Government Accountability Office investigated the claim and reported back to Congress that, except in a few instances, environmental laws have not impeded law enforcement. But neither the GAO’s findings nor the denials of officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations have slowed the progress of the bill recently passed by the House. One of the most sweeping anti-environmental laws ever proposed, it would essentially nullify laws protecting parks, wilderness, and wildlife within 100 miles of the nation’s northern and southern borders. It would override century-old protections of Olympic National Park in Washington, Glacier National Park in Montana, Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, and Big Bend National Park in Texas, as well as sacred Indian sites such as Montana’s Chief Mountain and nearby Sweet Grass Hills. The bill would permit the construction of military installations, roads, airstrips, and communication towers anywhere within the 100-mile zones. Federal law-enforcement officers would be free to drive on or off roads on public or tribal land.
* * *
America’s Southwestern deserts have been sacrificed to national security for more than half a century. We exploded the first atom bomb in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto and detonated 1,000 nuclear devices at the Nevada Test Site. During World War II, the Army trained nearly one million soldiers, most famously General George S. Patton’s tank battalions, on 18,000 square miles of California and Arizona desert. Today, Southwestern deserts are home to our largest missile and bombing ranges. No doubt because deserts, like the Tumacacori, are inhospitable to human life, we have treated them as if they had no life of their own.
The routes most heavily used by migrants and smugglers in recent years have been across the desert between El Paso, Texas, and the California border, a 30 million–acre wedge of land bought from Mexico in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. The first American to survey these lands, John Russell Bartlett, described them in 1854 as an “unbroken waste, barren, wild and worthless. … One becomes sickened and disgusted with the ever-recurring sameness of plain and mountain, plant and living thing.” A bookseller from New York with no formal education beyond high school, Bartlett traveled across the desert in a private coach, which he made into a bed at night. There, he found relief from the monotony of the landscape by reading Adolph Erman’s Travels in Siberia. Heading west from El Paso, Bartlett’s party lost its way in sandstorms, fought brushfire, and warded off hostile Indians. Bartlett himself was laid low with typhoid.
If the beleaguered surveyor sometimes failed to appreciate his surroundings, he was not unlike a modern tourist speeding across the apparently lifeless region. Then as now, the desert camouflages its assets. The area that Bartlett explored, extending across southwest New Mexico, northern Mexico, and east–central Arizona, is known today as the Madrean Archipelago or more informally as the Sky Islands. A checkerboard of isolated mountains separated by vast tracts of scrub, the region teems with life. It is home to nearly twice as many types of mammals as is Yellowstone National Park. Animals that thrive here do so by virtue of extraordinary resourcefulness. Bighorn sheep find water by goring open barrel cactus and devouring its moist pulp. Kangaroo rats metabolize water from seeds and plants. The key to survival for dozens of species is unfettered access to habitat on both sides of the border. Mule deer, puma, black bears, bighorn sheep, jaguar, ocelot, Mexico’s last free-ranging bison herd, and the nearly extinct Sonoran pronghorn must be free to move back and forth to search for scarce forage and water, to escape wildfires and drought, and to find mates. Now, many of them can’t do that. The fence, along with the noise and lights of generators and radio towers, has inhibited or simply blocked their movement. The Sky Island Alliance, a conservation group, says that only three viable migration corridors are left along the eastern third of Arizona’s border with Mexico, about 120 miles. Some species have already lost 75 percent of their historic range.
The pressure on wildlife is not due entirely to border fortifications. Millions of migrants trooping across the countryside have taken a toll as well, leaving mountains of trash, starting fires, polluting springs, vandalizing historic sites, and scattering wildlife. Officials of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on Arizona’s southern border, were compelled to close two-thirds of a 330,000-acre park to the public because of the dangers posed by narcotics traffickers. In 2002, after a park ranger was shot to death by two suspected drug smugglers, Organ Pipe was declared the most dangerous park in America by the park rangers’ branch of the Fraternal Order of Police. If the militarization of the border has made parks like Organ Pipe safer for visitors—and park officials insist it has—it has not provided a respite for harried wildlife.
Border Patrol base camps carved out of wilderness, speeding jeeps, and all-terrain vehicles have cut thousands of miles of unauthorized roads through national parks and wildlife refuges, compacting soil and diverting moisture. Unchecked, the process destroys the plants that hold scarce desert water in place and provide sustenance for ranchers’ cattle and wildlife. Three years after the installation of vehicle barriers prevented smugglers from driving north through the park, officials there reported a 40 percent increase in unauthorized roads, mostly due to Border Patrol activity. A recent study of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented a vast network of new roads, forged by the Border Patrol, that had caused an alarming level of damage. “We are disturbed by both the magnitude and the extent of the impacts we recorded,” the study said. “We did not expect to find almost 8,000 miles of vehicle trails through wilderness.”
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security pledged $50 million to repair environmental damage, but the release of that money—less than $9 million so far—has been slow. Even that allocation has outraged some conservatives. Arizona’s governor, Republican Jan Brewer, ridiculed one project to study the impact of the border fence on jaguar that range between northern Mexico and southern Arizona. In June, the House prohibited Homeland Security from spending any more money on repairing environmental damage along the border, with the sponsors of the ban referring to the payments as “extortion.”
The U.S.–Mexico border was once a co-dependent region with communities on both sides profiting from a daily exchange of goods and services, a hybrid culture with its own food, music, and commerce, where members of the same family lived on both sides, and businesses relied on an international clientele. Nogales, Arizona, for example, depended on Mexican consumers for 70 percent of its sales-tax revenue. Not only has the fence changed all that, it has cut people off from their own property. In South Texas, where the winding Rio Grande traces the border with Mexico, the fence had to be built on higher, dryer ground. Erected inside U.S. territory, it has separated some American farmers from their fields. John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, estimates that 35,000 to 50,000 acres planted with onions, cabbage, leafy green vegetables, and citrus are being trapped between the fence and the river.
Today, many critics of the fence are people it was supposed to protect—ranchers, farmers, and urban refugees who have been most vulnerable to the trespassing, littering, and petty thievery by migrants trooping north across their land. Arizona rancher John Ladd is one of the critics. His family has been raising cattle along the Arizona–Mexico border in the small community of Palominas for more than a century. A 15-foot-high section of fence runs along the 10-mile-long southern boundary of Ladd’s land. “They cut their way through it in a heartbeat,” says Ladd, standing next to a section of steel mesh that had been expertly peeled back. A sieve when it comes to stopping people, the fence acts as a dam. When it storms, rock and dirt pile up behind the fence, capturing the runoff that used to spread out across Ladd’s land and irrigate his pastures. When the water eventually does find a path through the fence, it gushes, cutting deep gullies and bypassing the high ground and the plants that feed Ladd’s cattle. Skinny calves bring skimpier profits. If too much water accumulates behind the fence, the area floods as it has several times along the Arizona border. The flooding killed two people and caused several million dollars in damage to hundreds of homes and businesses in Nogales and the smaller towns of Sonoyta and Lukeville in 2008. “The hydrology is tricky,” Ladd says. “You need to spend a little time out here to understand how it works. But they didn’t listen to us.”
Federal land managers warned Homeland Security officials that the design of the fence could impede normal drainage patterns during heavy rains. They didn’t heed the warnings, because they didn’t have to. The laws requiring consultation in such matters had been waived. Even though the fence was built through some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest, Congress empowered Homeland Security to ignore every major environmental statute—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and 30 other laws protecting historic structures, farmland, and American Indian relics and grave sites. As all-encompassing as it is, the waiver is a modest precursor of the legislation now making its way through Congress.
“It’s the wildlife that’s suffering the most,” says Ladd, noting the decline in the mule-deer herd that used to browse on his ranch. “We had about 200 that migrated seasonally between here and Mexico. After they finished building the wall in October, our herd has declined 70 percent from what it used to be.”
* * *
Nowhere is wildlife more abundant along the border than in the Malpai Borderlands, about 50 miles east of Ladd’s ranch. The Malpai is a tableau of grassland, marshy bottoms, and cottonwood thickets that extend from the emerald palisades of the Peloncillo Mountains to Mexico’s Sierra del Tigre. If the Sky Islands have an epicenter, the Malpai certainly qualifies. A 50-acre patch of scrub supports more rodents than does the state of Pennsylvania. In just one of the mountain passes, more species of reptiles and amphibians are found than in any other place in America. The mix of mountain and forest is ideal habitat for some of the most striking creatures in the wilds, among them the aplomado falcon, the parrot-like elegant trogon, and the jaguar, which until recently was thought to be extinct in the U.S. Slightly larger than Rhode Island, the Malpai is home to just 100 families, who have grown accustomed to surprise visits by both hungry humans and animals.
Warner Glenn is perhaps the best-known resident. His craggy features have graced the pages of menswear catalogues for many years. The kitchen wall of his modest ranch house is pocked with bullet holes where he and his wife, Wendy, dispatched a pair of rattlesnakes that had crawled behind the refrigerator. A hunting guide as well as a rancher, Glenn photographed a jaguar in 1996, laying aside his rifle and allowing the animal to escape. Glenn was violating a century-old Western code when he chose to let the animal live, but his decision became a model of Malpai conservation. Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Glenn and his neighbors have restored springs and vegetation, reintroduced bighorn sheep, and preserved the habitat of two dozen threatened species. One family alone spent two years rescuing a dwindling population of endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs by replenishing water holes and building an artificial stream. Their work earned the Malpai ranchers a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and gave credence to their opposition to the sort of border fence that has wrought havoc on John Ladd’s ranch. Although vehicle barriers have been built along the Malpai’s border with Mexico, they do not block wildlife migration. Now the ranchers worry that the legislation being pushed by congressional Republicans could jeopardize much of their conservation work.
More than 40 percent of our Southwestern borderlands are administered by federal agencies responsible for enforcing many of the nation’s environmental laws. Congressional critics say that these laws have made the federal lands a sanctuary for migrants and drug dealers who have crossed the border. In at least one instance, the critics say, a fleeing murderer was able to escape to Mexico through a wildlife refuge because the Border Patrol was locked out. Environmental laws have “jeopardized the safety and security of all Americans,” says Rob Bishop, the Utah congressman who sponsored the bill that would exempt the Border Patrol from the laws along the northern and southern borders.
In a rare alliance, ranchers and environmentalists along the northern and southern borders have joined to condemn Bishop’s bill. John Ladd has been one of the most outspoken. “It’ll take them a month to wreck country we’ve spent 40 years trying to build up,” he said. “How are they going to watch over a 100-mile swath of border when they can’t guard it now? I’ve had people busting through the fence every day since Thanksgiving, 15 carloads since February. This waiver is just an excuse to tear up more countryside.”
More than one agenda is being served by the bill. At least 10 of the 17 organizations listed as supporting it are advocates of more motorized travel in parks and wilderness. Bishop is one of the most stalwartly anti-environmental legislators on Capitol Hill. The group Republicans for Environmental Protection—now known as ConservAmerica—gave his environmental voting record a minus rating on two of its past three congressional scorecards. “His voting record is usually one of the worst,” said David Jenkins, the organization’s vice president for government and public affairs. “He’s philosophically against public land protection.” Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the interior under George W. Bush, says she believes that Bishop’s push for a border waiver has less to do with national security than with his desire to weaken environmental protection of public land. “The facts do not bear out their argument that federal land management has obstructed law enforcement,” she says. “But by cloaking their agenda as a national-security issue, the people for it may gain enough traction.”
Curiously, a bill sold as an anti-crime measure is being pushed at a time when crime rates in border communities have been lower than those of larger, more distant cities. El Paso has remained one of the safest cities of its size in the U.S., despite the horrific violence in neighboring Juarez. Moreover, the emphasis on policing remote sections of mountains and deserts along the border may be misplaced. A national threat assessment by the Justice Department recently pointed out that almost all of the cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin entering the U.S. comes in vehicles and railcars through urban ports of entry. “Most experts do not consider the Southwest border between [ports of entry] to be the most important point of vulnerability to [weapons of mass destruction] or other types of drugs and contraband,” the Congressional Research Service told Congress earlier this year.
That is not to say the borderlands are crime-free. From the days of Geronimo, renegades and outlaws have found a refuge in the Malpai. It gave cover to Apache holdouts long after the tribe had formally surrendered in 1886. William “Curly Bill” Brocius and Ike Clanton of OK Corral fame were among dozens of outlaws who found sanctuary in these mountains. Migrants and drug smugglers have been slipping through the canyons and passes for decades. Across the entire length of the border, ranchers frequently report thefts and break-ins. The desert is still the preferred pathway north for most foreign-produced marijuana, according to the Justice Department. Border Patrol agents and other government employees have been attacked. Two agents were fatally shot during the past decade. Another was run over and killed by a fleeing suspect. The circumstances of their deaths and other border crimes have made headlines around the country, none more prominently than the fatal shooting of Robert Krentz, a Cochise County, Arizona, rancher and member of the Malpai group.
Phil Krentz says that when his brother was shot, he had gone to help a migrant he thought was in trouble. The murder remains unsolved, though authorities suspect the killer was a drug smuggler who fled into Mexico. Krentz’s death galvanized congressional supporters of Bishop’s bill to expand the Border Patrol’s authority. In a letter urging passage of the 100-mile waiver, Bishop implied that Krentz’s murderer might not have gotten away if the Border Patrol had access to the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge through which the suspect escaped to Mexico. “His murderer chose to exploit vulnerabilities on federal land to traverse in and out of the United States,” wrote Bishop in a letter to House colleagues. “It is no coincidence that at this same location, the Border Patrol access has been limited by land managers who have literally locked out Border Patrol vehicles.” Bishop was wrong, according to the Government Accountability Office, which found that the Border Patrol had its own set of locks and keys to the San Bernardino Refuge. Moreover, Krentz’s neighbor, Wendy Glenn, says that her husband accompanied a federal law–enforcement agent through the refuge in pursuit of Krentz’s killer. “They had access,” she says. “The Border Patrol was in there. Warner was there with them, following the tracks from the kill site to the border. When Bishop came down here, I told him access wasn’t a problem.”
Bill McDonald, who owns another ranch nearby, says that authorities had no chance of catching the killer with or without access to the refuge. “The killer was back in Mexico before Rob Krentz’s body was found.”
Bishop’s proposed waiver of environmental laws is an ironic tribute to Krentz. He believed in conservation and, along with McDonald, was a member of the Malpai Borderlands Group. Like the Glenns, McDonald thinks waiving environmental laws would be damaging to lands that taxpayers have spent millions of dollars trying to protect. “I have to abide by the environmental laws. Why shouldn’t the Border Patrol have to?”
McDonald describes himself as a conservative Republican, an opponent of gun control and government meddling. But like many of his neighbors, he goes his own way when it comes to the border, where day-to-day experience more than ideology tends to shape people’s views. These ranchers aid needy travelers, regardless of their immigration status, help hunt down criminals, and show fresh Border Patrol recruits how to go easy on the land.
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