Keep beefing up Border Patrol? Some Arizona ranchers say no

04/30/2014 2:00 PM

06/09/2014 7:49 PM

While some members of Congress remain gung-ho about adding still more agents to the Border Patrol, ranchers who work along the border aren’t so sure that’s what’s needed.

Several ranchers say there are plenty of Border Patrol agents – even too many – but they’re deployed in the wrong places, usually away from the border.

Most Border Patrol agents staff checkpoints many miles inland.

“We don’t need more Border Patrol agents. We just need to put them on the international boundary,” said rancher John Ladd, whose family has been on his 14,000-acre spread near Naco in southeast Arizona for 118 years.

Ladd is among a handful of established ranchers who are unhappy with how Border Patrol vehicles zoom across their ranches, ripping up roads and tearing down fences, but rarely staying at the border itself.

They say legislators in Washington keep funding more agents and better technology _ such as abundant ground sensors and infrared cameras _ but fail to put the agents at the border to catch those coming across.

Opinion is far from unified in the ranching community, but it doesn’t take much effort to find ranchers, like Ladd, who say Border Patrol agents inflict heavy damage to their spreads.

Ladd said agents aboard three-quarter-ton pickups whizzed around the 37 miles of private road on his ranch around the clock.

“We’ve got 25 trucks a day doing that circuit. You’ve got to do maintenance once a month on it. You have to grade it,” he said, or it turns “rutted and corduroy.”

Ladd is particularly unhappy that agents harm his fences.

“They cut them, run through them, run over water troughs. They like driving cross-country, making roads,” he said. Repairing the damage is costly. “About 30 percent of my annual income is spent on border issues – illegals and Border Patrol – damage issues.”

At one corner of his ranch, the Border Patrol has posted a flatbed trailer with a telescoping boom topped with an infrared camera. An agent sits inside a cabin on the flatbed monitoring the border, Ladd said. Scattered elsewhere on the ranch are 200 to 300 ground sensors, he added.

The problem, Ladd said, is that there aren’t enough agents at the border when drug smugglers or migrants penetrate, touching off sensors. He said the smugglers used motorized saws with carbide blades to rip big holes through the steel mesh border fence. They can cut the holes in minutes, he said.

In most cases, the holes are large enough to allow a pickup loaded with narcotics to drive through. Ladd said smugglers had done so 46 times on his property in recent years, and that Border Patrol agents had intercepted them only once.

For his part, rancher Ed Ashurst got fed up with repairing gravel roads on the property he manages.

“You’ll see an agent driving down a road that you ought to be driving 20 miles an hour on and he’s flying down at 50 or 60 miles an hour. They just tear stuff up,” Ashurst said.

One particular incident proved too much.

“They ran into a couple of cows that belonged to me, and they wouldn’t pay for them. So I kicked them off,” Ashurst said.

Since Ashurst manages a ranch that sprawls over 53,000 acres on the border with Mexico, he presumed that his move would draw serious consequences.

“I thought they were going to hang me from a light pole,” Ashurst said.

That didn’t happen. Ashurst said he set some rules and the Border Patrol agents had abided by them.

“They can walk anywhere they want to. I just do not allow them to drive a motorized vehicle or a horse onto my property,” Ashurst said.

Levels of anger and frustration depend on geography, locations of ranches, changing migration patterns and ways in which the Border Patrol operates.

James K. Chilton, the head of the Southern Arizona Cattlemen’s Protective Association, said thousands of undocumented migrants crossed his property, doing untold damage. He doesn’t complain of damage by Border Patrol vehicles. But he does say border strategy is wrongheaded.

“The ‘defense and depth’ policy is a failure. It doesn’t work,” Chilton said. “The fault is in Washington.”

Chilton, who spoke by telephone while visiting the nation’s capital, said he’d offered the Border Patrol 10 acres right at the border on his 50,000-acre ranch, west of Nogales, to use as a forward operating base. So far, the agents haven’t accepted it.

U.S. senators from border states acknowledge that there are frictions with ranchers over border policy implementation and about damage to their properties.

“From time to time, there is concern about that,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who’s the minority whip. “The Border Patrol tries to work with ranchers . . . to make sure they are good neighbors. But occasionally problems do arise.”

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who sought last year to mandate and fund a doubling of the size of the Border Patrol to around 40,000 agents as part of an immigration bill that never passed, said placing more agents at the border itself wasn’t the answer.

“It’s like in any war. You don’t just rely on the front line. We have to also have some depth,” McCain said. But he noted that many border ranchers face serious difficulties from many quarters. “Their frustration is real.”

Chilton said 4,000 migrants had crossed his ranch so far this year, and the border fence is so flimsy along the five-and-a-half-mile stretch of his property that touches the border that drug smugglers have made it a favored crossing.

“There’s a 30-mile gap of four-strand unpatrolled fence – a cattle fence – and I have to maintain it,” Chilton said.

He said he’d had encounters with heavily armed drug smugglers.

“Can you imagine what it feels like to run into people with AK-47s dressed in camo and with 30 people behind them?” Chilton asked, explaining what happens next. “We all go the other way as fast as possible.”

Ashurst has had a different experience. When he barred Border Patrol motorized vehicles on his property in late 2012, “everybody thought that I was going to have every illegal alien on the border on my property. I thought so, too.”

But Ashurst said he’d instead had fewer problems with migrants. He can’t explain why. Paradoxically, he said, “most illegal aliens are where the most Border Patrol agents are” _ near major points of entry.

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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