One border ranch’s battles

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

LUNA COUNTY, NEW MEXICO – The dogs at the Johnson ranch bark nearly all night, warning residents of the immigrants who are crossing this remote ranch land at the southern edge of New Mexico.

They bark at the people they can’t see, hundreds at a time, stealing into the night and into the United States.

From his front porch, after the sun has set, cattle rancher Joe Johnson can hear immigrants converse as they stream in from Mexico.

He can’t see them, but when the sun rises, he’ll know the damage they’ve done.

As Johnson wakes up, often cringing at the thought of the work he’ll have to do to fix his cattle fence or his water lines, his dogs head to sleep for the day.

That’s not the only thing that’s out of sync with the rest of the world down here.

Down here, Cadillacs and minivans are abandoned when they get stuck in the Johnsons’ sand. Piles of backpacks, clothes, water bottles and trash line the arroyos. And residents seethe, living in the wake of what thousands of immigrants a year leave behind.

While Border Patrol officials aren’t sure of the exact increase of immigrants crossing into the United States in the area around Deming, Johnson estimates traffic has increased 500 percent this year over last.

The debate over how to handle the situation has been ratcheted up, as well, with Gov. Bill Richardson last week declaring a state of emergency in four southern New Mexico counties and with civilian members of the Minuteman Project set to monitor the border this fall.

“We are being invaded by another country,” says Johnson, whose family started living off the land in Luna County in 1918.

`An emergency-type situation’

Johnson, a looming 42-year-old with a sun-battered cowboy hat, can’t recall the first time he realized immigrants were using his ranch as a gateway to the United States. Mexicans have been crossing for pretty much as long as he can remember.

With the recent increase, response times from law enforcement have declined, he said.

The Johnsons say they put in almost daily calls to the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which employs 1,229 agents and includes two western Texas counties plus all of New Mexico. Law enforcement also includes a handful of State Police officers and Luna County sheriff’s deputies. They used to respond within minutes but now take an hour or more, Johnson said.

“It’s strictly because they are overwhelmed,” he said.

Johnson is too. Tired, inundated and fed up.

He recently lost 155,000 gallons of water from a storage tank when he says immigrants broke one of his water lines in search of something to soothe their thirst.

Immigrants, who have carved foot paths as well as dirt roads across Johnson’s property, break holes in his fence, which for eight miles is the U.S.-Mexico border.

That fence keeps his cattle in and Mexican cattle out – a boundary that’s crucial when it comes to controlling livestock diseases.

“It could be horrendous for the industry. If foot-and-mouth came across, it could be horrible,” Johnson said.

While Johnson’s cattle have plenty of space to roam in the Chihuahuan desert, that same vastness causes him some consternation.

The Border Patrol has told the Johnsons to avoid some pockets of their 102,000-acre property, especially at night.

“There are areas where if you have work to do, you’d better get it done early,” said Teresa Johnson, Joe’s wife.

In this rugged space where crime seems as far away as New York or Seattle, the Johnsons could talk all day about the problems they’ve had with immigrants.

Joe Johnson said he and his brother were held at gunpoint once, by immigrants who then stole their pickup. Late last month, Johnson said, seven people knocked on the door of his brother house, saying other immigrants were shooting at them and had kidnapped three women who were traveling with them. The women were released a short time later, Johnson said.

The Johnsons have become increasingly vocal about their situation. They’ve talked to their state representatives, to their U.S. representatives, to anyone who will listen, he said.

“We’ve done everything but get down on our knees begging,” he said.

Part of a homeland security bill recently approved by the Senate contains money for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents nationwide. It also would appropriate about $256 million for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia. Both Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, have praised the bill and the money it will bring to the state if approved by the House in its current form and signed by President Bush.

Still, residents doubt any solution will be quick.

“If it takes two years to get control, I can’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine the way it is today,” Johnson said.

Knowing that more agents might be heading to the border doesn’t put Johnson at ease. Agents are in training for 19 weeks before they are assigned to their posts.

“I think it’s an emergency-type situation. We need someone here now. We can’t wait. They need to deploy more agents or the military or National Guard. Somebody.”

Sitting at their kitchen table, Teresa Johnson agrees.

“We have so many people over there fighting (in Iraq), and maybe I’m selfish, but I think we need to look out for No. 1.”

Who’ll guard the border?

An hour west of the Johnsons’ ranch, in nearby Grant County, just miles from the Continental Divide but not much else, horse trainer Robert Been is also fed up.

A member of the Rough Riders, a mounted subset of the Minuteman Project, Been says he watched St. Catherine of Sienna Catholic Church in the outpost of Hachita slowly get ruined by immigrants taking shelter.

Locals earlier this year boarded up the church because of the garbage, the rotting food and the human waste inside.

That’s just one sign that the area is changing, Been says.

“We used to never lock our doors. Now it’s like you don’t dare leave it open,” Been said.

Like the Johnsons, Been has had problems with his water.

“I have to haul my water. I don’t need 20 or 30 people taking a bath with it,” he said.

His neighbors have been robbed of food, clothes, guns and trucks, he says, and left with piles of water bottles and twisted bicycles, which immigrants ride until the tires go flat.

The bitter joke in this area, ringed by the Hatchet and the Cedar mountains, is that the 40 or 50 residents ought to start a bike shop. Or a plastic bottle recycling business.

Stationing the National Guard along the border doesn’t sound like a bad idea to Been, either. New recruits could get some experience in the harsh landscape, he said.

Richardson, however, has said he doesn’t think Guard members are needed. His emergency declaration frees money for more state and local law enforcement.

Doug Mosier, a U.S. Border Patrol public affairs officer, said the government wants its agents to do the often-dangerous work.

“We would always prefer to have trained Border Patrol agents to do that kind of work,” he said. “We understand the passion and commitment of U.S. citizens.”

Been says he’d like to see dozens more agents stationed closer to the border than N.M. 9, the southernmost paved road in Luna County.

While Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner recently floated the idea of a civilian group that would help the Border Patrol, Mosier said he’s not aware of any plans to do that. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman has said there are no plans to use a civilian patrol.

Been and other Minutemen say something has to be done, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“Bush should go explain to the victims of 9-11 why he hasn’t secured our border. If someone was trying to break into my house, the first thing I would do is close the doors,” said Been, looking almost like the Marlboro Man as he smokes and leads a horse along in the desert, which for a fleeting moment is cloudy.

Come October, Been and other members of the Minuteman Project plan to patrol the border, looking for crossers and reporting them to the Border Patrol, an undertaking similar to a recent monthlong operation in Arizona.

The group, however, has been met with some ire.

Jackie Hadzic, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said her group opposes the Minutemen but supports law enforcement.

While neither group wants criminals entering the country from other places, “we don’t have enough workers,” she said. “Americans don’t take the jobs, even in cities with 30 percent unemployment.”

Many immigrants, she said, are simply looking for a better life.

“They are hardworking people,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is to be working in fields?

“They pay into Social Security, they pay taxes, they are helping us out, and we are helping them back.”

Her group, which has held anti-Minutemen protests in Las Cruces, is looking into how to express its opposition to the group this fall.

William Norris, southern coordinator for the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps of New Mexico, said members of the group are getting trained for October duty.

“Our primary concern is national security,” he said. “You don’t know who is bringing what.”

Norris said he’s particularly worried about the number of OTMs, or Other Than Mexican people, entering the United States.

“Abdul has a very similar complexion to Juan. You can’t tell them apart,” he said.

Border Patrol officials estimate that OTMs make up about 3.5 percent of immigrants apprehended in the El Paso Sector but 35 percent to 40 percent in parts of south Texas.

While the Minutemen have created a stir in Arizona and southern New Mexico cities like Las Cruces, Norris and Been say they aren’t an anti-immigration group. They say their group is active on the Mexican and Canadian borders.

But, they say, immigrants need to follow the law.

“You need to come through the gate and do it right,” Norris said.

Norris, who constructs rock walls for a living, said he’s disappointed in federal officials for not doing more to defend the border.

“They want cheap labor, and they are willing to risk terrorism to get it,” he said.

Published Aug. 20, 2005.