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The Arizona Challenge

  • If you live in Arizona you have two choices: agree to see your country overrun with illegal aliens or defend your property.
By William Carmichael

Arizona became the preferred U.S. crossing point for Mexican illegal immigrants two years ago.

Now, with their efforts to restrict illegal immigrants' rights in California blocked by courts, some Americans are pushing to make Arizona the front line in a new battle against illegal immigration.

Neither major political party presidential candidate -- George W. Bush for the GOP and Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats -- wants to do anything about it.

It is left to citizens to protect themselves and their families and property -- and face problems with their own government.

Pro-illegal groups have protested to the government that the anti-illegal effort has created growing tension and has sparked fear in northern Mexican towns. It seems that illegals are worried that they won't be welcomed with open arms by legal United States citizens.

The situation also worries U.S. government officials, even those who so far have largely tolerated ranchers who set out with guns and dogs to look for Mexicans crossing the border.

In the southeastern Arizona town of Douglas, on the Mexican border, the once-overwhelming influx of illegal immigrants through residents' properties has declined due to the posting of additional Border Patrol agents. Despite the drop off, some ranchers and their supporters in the area have decided to build a political movement.


They concede that property damage is no longer the driving issue, as they once claimed. Instead, they are trying to spark a nationwide battle against what resident Larry Vance calls "a literal invasion."

Vance, the son of a Mexican immigrant, denies any connection to hate groups.

"I don't want any goofball groups around," he said.

But he said southern California "has already become a political extension of Mexico," and he patrols his land outside Douglas from a steel tower with his night-vision goggles.

With California's anti-immigrant Pro position 187 struck down by the courts and with little support from the state, several California-based groups came out to the nearby Arizona town of Sier ra Vista in mid-May for a meeting to support the local movement.

Reporters at the meeting said that participants hailed rancher Roger Bar nett -- who patrols his 22,000-acre ranch with a high-powered rifle and dogs and has detained dozens of immigrants -- as a national hero.

"I get calls every week from people wanting to come here and help," Barnett said. He added that he has turned down the offers because he doesn't think they would be effective.

But Barnett says the damage in litter, lost cattle and downed fences on his property -- which has cost him about $15,000 -- "is not the primary thing" anymore.

"It's a principle," he said.

The ranchers face a potential legal fight from the Mexican government, which has hired a Washington law firm to take possible legal action against them for assault. They hate the Mexican government so much, they almost relish the prospect of a tussle.

"Maybe the troops need to go down and occupy Mexico," Barnett said.

That's what presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan has suggested -- bring U.S. troops home from overseas and put them on the borders to prevent the illegal invasion that is threatening to overwhelm the country.

Despite pressure from Mexico, the U.S. government has paid little more than lip service to discourage the movement. The government argues it can't stop U.S. citizens from patrolling their own private property, though there are reports that some ranchers have taken to detaining immigrants on roads outside their land.

Local, state and federal authorities have never found an immigrant willing to lodge a complaint against the ranchers. Vance said one local official told him to "stay within the law, so I can stay on your side."

The patrol's Tucson sector chief, David Aguilar, concedes the ranchers "are an assistance, in the sense that they're our eyes and ears" in remote areas around the border.

But Aguilar said the Border Patrol is concerned about the potential danger of citizen detentions. His second-in-command, Carlos Carrillo, said there has been an increase in incidents of violence since the ranchers' movement started a year ago.

It is undeniable that illegal immigrants have frightened residents and caused property damage since they began making Arizona their main crossing point.