Life on the Border

Posted: Dec 05, 2008 12:02 AM
Life on the Border

Editors' Note: This article is from the September issue of Townhall Magazine. This Christmas season, you can receive two subscriptions of Townhall Magazine for the price of one. It makes a great gift!

Joe Johnson’s family has lived and worked on the same property near Columbus, N.M., for almost 100 years. “Our grandfather came here in 1918, right behind Pancho Villa,” he says proudly. Yet he also admits, “If it wasn’t home, I would move away from it.”

The Johnson ranch lies right up against the Mexican border, and illegal immigration has turned what was already a hard way to make a living on drought--plagued rangeland into a nightmare of stolen cattle, broken water lines,ruined fences and grass fi res.

“In 2005, we had 500-plus people crossing our ranch every day,” explains housewife, Teresa Johnson. “In 2006, we had 1,000-plus people crossing every day.These are not our numbers; these are Border Patrol numbers. They had counted foot draff c and the numbers of people they caught and things like that. So, you can just imagine what our fences look like.

“We were afraid for our kids to even walk out to the barn to feed animals. We had to go as a group. One time we walked into the barn and found 15 people sitting there. And the trash is unreal.”


In addition to the usual backpacks, water bottles and clothing, the Johnsons have even found hypodermic needles and syringes in their water troughs. In fact, water sources are a major problem in areas where illegal traffic is heavy. You might think that people wandering through land that belongs to someone else would politely turn on a faucet, fill up their jug and turn off the water. Nope.

“These people will cut pipelines, bathe in our water troughs and even defecate in our water troughs,” explains Teresa.

“That’s not to mention, they would tear off our fl oat valves trying to get a drink of water,” adds Joe. “And if we didn’t catch this quickly, it would drain all of our storage systems. A lot of water in this area is pipelined in for miles. When it would drain, then it would airlock the pipelines. It might take a couple of days before we could get water fl owing again.”

“Keep in mind the expense of all this, ”  he says. “We’ve got about 10 miles of U.S.-Mexico border on the ranch. When the traffic was at its worst, we had to look at the fence at least once or twice a day. And that’s just the border fence. Our time was consumed with it. If we weren’t fixing fence, we were doctoring cattle or pumping water they had drained out.”


Their water problems went far beyond broken fl oats. In 2005, the Johnsons lost 18 calves to a respiratory disease. At first, they were afraid that some illegals had brought in a disease (which could very well happen through contaminated clothing, shoes, etc.). They brought in the state veterinarian and the livestock board to help them figure out what was causing their cattle to become sick.

“What was happening is we were having cattle break into pasteurella pneumonia,” Joe Johnson explains. “We had calves getting sick with this, and if you don’t catch it quick, they die. What caused it was so much illegal traffic coming across. It was during the heat of the summer, so when the cattle would go to a water source, there might be 50 to 100 people there. They would drive my cattle away, scare them.”

“Those people would eventually leave, and our cattle would start drifting back in to get another drink of water. Unfortunately, another big group of illegals would come in and run them off again,” Johnson says. “This continued 24-hours a day, seven days a week. If traffic would have continued like that, or if it was to come back like that, it would probably put us out of business.”


Luckily, about that time, the National Guard was sent into the area for two years. Due to their presence, along with an increase in Border Patrol numbers, the Johnsons say that conditions on their ranch have improved tremendously. However, the National Guard recently left, and Joe says his family is already starting to see traffic pick up a little.

In the meantime, they’re hoping that infrastructure being put in place will help keep traffic down. The Army Corps of Engineers has been putting vehicle barriers along the border, as well as pedestrian barriers. And the Johnsons also think the U.S. government’s plan to fence off the border will help.

“The pedestrian barriers being built in certain areas, like around Palomas [Mexico] about 15 to 20 feet tall, I think can help,” says Johnson. “I don’t think anything as far as a fence is a sure thing to stop it, but I do believe a fence is very much a necessity, especially for livestock movement. Also, the vehicle barriers they’re building in our area should help. We had a lot of vehicle crossings. I have one pasture that had six abandoned vehicles in it in 2006.”

One particular vehicle crossing was especially scary. Teresa explains, “In January, there was a pickup that had been used for smuggling drugs, and it was on the Mexican side. They put a brick or something on the accelerator, tied the steering wheel to the door and put it in gear. They set it on fire re, and it came across about three-fourths of a mile into the United States.”

“I can’t believe it got this far traveling across country, unmanned,” she says. “We think it was aimed at one of the National Guard skyboxes. It got stuck in a rat den and burned to the ground. We couldn’t believe that it didn’t start a grass fire re. This was in January, and we hadn’t had any rain since September of last year, so it was very, very dry.”

Other times, they haven’t been so lucky with fires res. In July of 2005, three immigrants who were consequently picked up by the Border Patrol admitted to starting a fire re that resulted in 100 acres of the Johnson’s precious grassland being burned. That land has yet to recover.

“They said the only reason they lit this fire re is because they were tired and thirsty and they wanted the Border Patrol to come pick them up,” says Johnson. “So they lit a match. We’ve had other places on the ranch that have been burned as well, but they didn’t catch the people who did it.”


To add insult to injury, the Johnsons say the attitude of many illegals they have encountered on their property leaves much to be desired. For example, after a vehicle barrier was constructed about a mile long on the north side of their fence in 2005, Teresa says that in a matter of days the people on the other side of the border rolled up that mile of their fence, apparently thinking they had abandoned it. So she and her husband had to rebuild that stretch of fence to keep their cattle in.

“It was very expensive to replace that fence, and while my husband and I were building it, busload after busload of people were coming out of Palomas, which is the village south of Columbus, ” Teresa explains. “They were crossing right in front of us. They had no fear. There would be 80 or 90 people get off this bus, urinate right in front of us, say all kinds of obscene things to us, give us the finger.”

“I’m sorry, but I think if you want to come over here, we’re definitely not welcoming you with open arms with that kind of attitude,” she says. “Used to, when they came through, they were half-starved, and you would feed them. That’s just what you did. And then you would call the Border Patrol.”

“But now,” Teresa says, “they are demanding, and they want a ride—which we would never do. It’s a totally different type of person coming across. It’s so dangerous, not just for us but for them, too. We’ve had people here that were so dehydrated they didn’t know who they were. They didn’t know where they were. It was very sad.”


Just as aggravating is the impact the illegals have on local healthcare and educational systems. The nearest hospital for the Johnsons is45 minutes away in Deming. That hospital has spent millions of dollars providing services to indigent people. According to 2005 U.S. House Judiciary Committee testimony by U.S. Republican Congressman Steve Pearce, who represents New Mexico’s 2ndDistrict, which includes Deming and all of the state’s Mexican border, illegal immigrants have comprised up to one quarter of Deming’s Mimbres Memorial Hospital’s patients annually. Pearce also testified that “providing emergency care to illegal immigrants costs the hospital at least $400,000 per month.”

“What I can’t understand is that they’ll send an ambulance to the port south of Columbus to pick up a woman in labor,” she says. “Yet when my son was in a car accident, bleeding all over the place with glass in him, they wouldn’t even touch him [at the hospital] until I showed proof of insurance and paid my $50 co-pay. Something is wrong with that.”

Teresa is also aggravated by the multiple school buses that actually cross into Mexico to pick up kids in Palomas that get a free education in her local schools. She says the rationale is that these are American citizens who happen to live in Mexico. There are so many that Columbus has built an extra elementary school, and a bond to build anew high school recently failed.

“It’s frustrating to me when agriculture is a tax base for the county, and it’s coming out of my pocket to educate people from another country, ” she explains.


Even with all those problems, perhaps the most sinister problem for the Johnsons is a cattle thief from the other side. He registered their brand in Mexico (with a slight alteration) so he could easily sell the cattle he stole from them. In fact, Teresa and Joe feel their safety is so threatened by this theif that they do not allow photos of themselves to be published.

Unfortunately, it’s not too hard to imagine how that threat could be carried out.

“It was not uncommon to have someone looking in your window every morning at 5 o’clock,” says Teresa. “We’re very isolated. We were even afraid to go to town to buy groceries.”

“During its worst, I saw illegals everyday,” Joe says. “I live three miles from the border, and I have two or three dogs here at all times. It was getting to the point between the dogs barking at them and an illegal knocking on my window, it was getting hard to sleep at night. As far as I can tell, we are still on the U.S. side of the border, and I ought to be, in my opinion, just as safe as anybody in Colorado or anywhere else. I shouldn’t have all this illegal traffic crossing me like this.”

“It’s hard to explain the insanity it was,” Joe recalls, “and I just hope and pray it doesn’t come back like that.”


Wendy and Warner Glenn have lived on their ranch in the San Bernardino valley of Arizona, east of Douglas, since 1963.They have close to four miles of border fence with Mexico, and they, too, have seen it all when it comes to problems stemming from illegal immigration.

“I’m 67 and my husband is 72. We both grew up around Douglas,” Wendy says. “For years and years, we’d see maybe eight or nine illegals go through a month. They were going to specific jobs they had with specific ranches or businesses in the area.”

“Then in the late ’60s, we started seeing drug trafficking coming through,” Wendy adds. “They would bring marijuana bundles in or fly over and drop it or whatever. The U.S. government brought Customs and DEA into the area, and then after that it started escalating a little more and a little more.”

“Then, probably in the last 10 to 15years,” Glenn says, “there have been huge groups of people coming through. We’ve seen groups of up to 100 from all different countries, but mostly Mexican. We have had Chinese picked up on our property, Pakistanis, you name it.”


Glenn recalls how the amnesty program of the 1980s brought huge numbers of people through the area. And since then, whenever the president of the United States and the president of Mexico are seen together on television, talking about the relationship between the two countries, she says they see a surge of people expecting amnesty again.

“What we see here now are daily trails across the country that are from three to four feet wide,” Glenn says. “We see family groups with little kids. We don’t see the people as much as we see the footprints and the trash—disposable diapers, baby bottles, clothing, blankets, all kinds of trash. Nowadays, we also see cell phones, electrolytes, a lot of naproxen and even paperwork, like social security cards and IDs that they have lost.”

The Glenns’ ranch is part of the Malpai Borderlands Group, which is an organization formed by landowners to implement ecosystem management on nearly 1 million acres of open rangeland in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The group had a trash cleanup program, paying a man to clean up after the immigrants for eight hours a day. It took four years to complete.


“The groups that come in have leaders called coyotes. Those guys know the ways to go through, and they get paid a lot per person to bring them in,” Wendy says. “They cut our fences, they mash down our fences, they rob some of the ranchers. Generally, the robberies happen when a group of people take drugs north and they’re going back south. They stop at a ranch house and take off with everything they can carry—in a pickup they stole from the ranch they were robbing.”

Glenn says the coyotes also lie to the people they are being paid to guide, telling them it’s an easy trip or that it’s not as far to their destination as it really is. And if someone can’t keep up, they get left behind. In fact, the Glenns have rescued several people, including a woman who went into labor early and delivered a baby in one of their pastures.

The woman’s husband and brother who were traveling with her found apiece of broken glass to cut the umbilical cord and luckily found their way to the Glenn ranch house. By the time they got there, the mother was going into shock. Wendy had a woman helping her at the time who happened to have a bit of nursing experience, and she helped stabilize the woman until an ambulance sent by the Border Patrol got there.


The heavy foot traffic takes a toll on the land and wildlife as well as the landowners and their livestock. “They make these trails, and there is erosion when it rains,” Glenn explains. “In the summer when they’re looking for shade, they’ll pull up a bunch of grass by the roots and lay it on top of the mesquite bushes for shade. We don’t have much grass to start with, and when you pull it out by the roots, it’s over. And they are killing the small wildlife to eat.”

One of the Glenns’ neighbors found some illegals who had butchered a newborn calf he had just penned up with its mother. While he went to get a trailer to take the livestock home to the ranch headquarters because of calving problems, the aliens had killed the calf and were cooking some of the meat over a fire by the time he got back.

Glenn says the smugglers around Douglas have taken to an interesting tactic to get their drugs past Border Patrol checkpoints. They will scope out a local resident’s vehicle and then clone it right down to the grill guard and bumper stickers. Even Forest Service and Border Patrol vehicles have been cloned.

You have to almost admire their ingenuity. In Douglas, which has long been prone to stealing as well as illegal crossings, Glenn says the town now has a huge fence to keep people out.

“The people on the other side had a gate cut in the fence at some point after they put the solid wall in. They welded hinges on the gate, put a hasp on it and locked it. When they wanted to come through with their loads, they would unlock it and come through with several trucks at a time when the Border Patrol wasn’t watching,” she says. “Finally, the Border Patrol accidentally saw a truck. They looked, and there was a gate. In fact, there are gates all along the border.”

They’ve also found ways around the vehicle barriers.

“We have an eight-strand barbed-wire fence out here. And they are replacing about 14 miles with vehicle barriers, which are rails set on two posts—one at each end,” she explains. “The vehicles can’t drive through. But the dopers have trailers with ramps on them now. They back up and drive up over those ramps and land on the other side of the barrier. In places, there are ditches to try and stop them, and the just put a bridge across them with a ramp.”

“Over by Naco [Ariz.], they have a huge fence. They tore out the vehicle barriers because the ramps couldn’t stop the traffic. They weren’t concerned about people walking through the barriers until they saw how many people there were. So, they built a fence. Now they have a full-time fence-repair person who gets out every morning and patches the holes that were cut in the fence. They had lights and cameras, all kinds of people watching those fences. And they still had people coming through it with ladders and ropes,” Glenn says.


Another thing people don’t know is there are a lot of incursions into the United States by federal troops from Mexico, according to Glenn. She says they come armed in Humvees to intimidate ranchers. “They’re running interference ahead of the dopers, clearing the path for them because they’re in on the deal,” she explains.

When asked what should be done about these problems, Glenn thinks it’s already too late.

“I don’t think we can stop it unless we have some kind of guest-worker program where they can legally come inhere with papers,” she explains. “They have been told that we’re going to do this kind of program but after two years they have to go home. Well, you can’t take somebody and put them in a fancy hotel for two years and then expect them to go back and live in a tent out in the middle of nowhere. They’re not going to go back down there and starve. Mexico has got to make it where their citizens want to stay home.”


But Wendy Glenn is neither holding her breath for that nor for our elected officials to get a true picture of what is actually going on at the border.

Several years ago, Glenn was one of several ranchers invited to a “private” meeting with several congressional representatives, including Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, former Rep. Jim Kolbe and Asa Hutchison, the new head of Border Security for the new Department of Homeland Security at the time.

“When we got to the meeting, the press were at the meeting and there were people picketing up and down the highway. They had the Border Patrol in charge of this meeting, and the sector chief at the time got up and gave them a bunch of facts and figures about what was going on,” Glenn recalls. “The chief said, ‘We’ve stemmed the flow.’ The ranchers and I were looking at each other, thinking we just saw a lot going on out on the border the last few days!”

“So, then we rode around in vans,” Wendy says, “and I was lucky enough to be in a van with Kolbe, Kyl, McCain, Hutchison, some of the aides and the sector chief of the border patrol. We were driving down the border going west, about 40 miles an hour, passing Border Patrol fixing fence—which we had never seen. There were helicopters in the air, light towers, camera towers, Border Patrol trucks parked every 50 or 60 feet off the road watching.”

“Mr. Hutchison looked out as the helicopter went over and asked, ‘Is this like this all the time or is this just for us?’” Wendy remembers. “The sector chief said it was this way on the whole border. One of the ranchers with me rolled his eyes and said, ‘I live here. This is my ranch. And I have never seen it.”

“Our people in Washington are like everybody else in the country,” she says.“ They get bits and pieces. I feel bad for President Bush—and every president—because he is fed information and has to make a decision based on what he hears. They don’t get the whole story, and they can’t go out on the ground without some big dog-and-pony show.”

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, and I don’t know how they’re going to stop it,” Glenn says. “They need to make it where people in Mexico want to stay home. And I don’t think it’s going to happen: It’s gone too far.”


The good news is that both families say they have a good working relationship with the Border Patrol.

In Arizona, Wendy Glenn credits the Border Patrol’s stakeholder group that was formed to work out problems and keep communications flowing between the agency and landowners along the border. The group meets monthly to discuss problems and questions and works together to address those issues.

In New Mexico, too, the agency has a ranch liaison group that stays in contact with local ranchers and handles their concerns as they arise. For example, they are working with ranchers to design a vehicle barrier that will keep livestock contained.

While the Border Patrol may have a thankless job in many aspects, as Joe Johnson says, “We need the Border Patrol out here.”

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