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December 2, 2000 Saturday

SECTION: WORLD, Pg. B1 / Front In Douglas, Arizona

LENGTH: 1278 words

HEADLINE: 'It's an act of war against my nation': A clampdown on illegal immigration in California and Texas has triggered a stampede of human traffic from Mexico into Arizona. Armed ranchers, who fear the U.S. could be 'overthrown,' are hunting them down.

BYLINE: Hilary Mackenzie

SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen


It's midday when Larry Vance climbs his 10-metre steel watchtower on the edge of this gritty southeastern Arizona border town to hunt down illegal aliens.

Mr. Vance is loaded for bear.

"Bastards had a shootout in my pasture last week," he fumes, donning high-powered binoculars and pointing to fresh tracks. "Eight to 10 shots were fired. One at my house.

"In June they poisoned my dogs. Had 'em vomiting and s--tting blood," he says. "Now they're raping, robbing and beating people. "It's an act of war against my nation," Mr. Vance says as we drive out three kilometres west along the U.S.-Mexican border in his Dodge Ram. "Douglas is ground zero -- the doormat of the United States.

"I'm watching my country be overrun by people who want to overthrow it. It's treason." We drive by miles of unguarded border where the barbed wire 1930s-era fence lies twisted on the parched desert floor, stomped into the ground. "Stay in the vehicle -- you never know who'll jump out of the bush," he barks.

Douglas, a desert town of 15,000, is the latest hotspot in a burning border war over U.S. immigration policy. When Washington clamped down on illegal immigration in California and Texas, the human foot traffic shifted to Arizona. Douglas is the busiest crossing point.

- - - "Squeeze the balloon in one part and it bulges in another," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. "Whenever one segment is secured, you simply increase the pressure on other sections of the border." If the immediate crisis is caused by a shift in the foot traffic, the real dilemma lies with a contradictory U.S. immigration policy that both attracts and repels immigrants.

From the fruit-picking market in California, to the meat-packing industry in Iowa, U.S. employers benefit from a cheap, highly flexible immigrant labour force.

Fearful of a downturn in the economy that could spark a violent anti-immigration backlash, Washington will not rationalize its policies to allow more low-skilled migrants to legally enter the country.

The illegal foot traffic has built to a stampede. Border Patrol agents in Douglas arrest more than 1,000 people a night, twice as many as last year. Four times the number five years ago.

For every one caught, anywhere between four and 15 are undetected. Along the full length of the 440-kilometre Arizona border, more than 680,000 people have been nabbed since October 1999.

As the numbers spiral upwards, so too have the deaths, as the illegals are funnelled into ever-more hostile terrain under hazardous temperatures that soar higher than 54 degrees Celsius in the day, and plummet below zero at night. Since October 1999, more than 100 Mexicans have died along the Arizona border, including 15 in the Douglas area.

Led by "coyotes" -- human smugglers -- they tramp through high desert mesquite country -- dotted with spiny, fingery ocotillo, prickly pear, greasewood and whitethorn. Cactus that succour Indians with moisture and fruit, and spike aliens with thorns.

The migrants crawl on their knuckles or walk on their heels past Thorn of Christ cactus as they recut trails used by Pancho Villa's troops. Deadly rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes and the Gila monster are all ready to strike.

With the Border Patrol stretched to breaking point, ranchers and rural residents like Mr. Vance, who own much of the land that abuts the unfenced border, have taken matters into their own hands.

They conduct armed patrols, herd illegals -- sometimes at gunpoint -- and turn the migrants over to the Border Patrol for arrest. Recently an anonymous Neighborhood Ranch Watch invited tourists to pile into their SUVs, pack their night scopes and "have some fun in the sun" while hunting aliens.

Their actions have provoked a backlash on the Mexican side. A retired oilworker there posted a $100,000 U.S. reward to the first person to gun down a U.S. border patrol agent.

Former Mexican foreign secretary Rosario Green denounced the civilian patrols as "brutal displays of xenophobia." "This is racist behaviour that violates all international rules," she said.

But Mr. Vance and his posse of heavily armed Cochise County Concerned Citizens are defiant.

"I'm not afraid to die and I'm sure as hell not afraid to fight," he says. "I'm not gonna be drummed off my land. I'm not gonna back off." "They're violating my civil rights," Mr. Vance says. "The government should protect its people and they're not doing that. So we have no alternative but to protect ourselves." He reaches for his .44 Magnum. "I'm not xenophobic," the 44-year-old son of a legal Mexican immigrant says. "But you can't leave the border open for four billion people to come here."

Mr. Vance curses as he steps out of the pickup to show a lunar landscape filled with trash. Underwear, soiled toilet paper, dirty diapers, toothpaste, plastic water jugs, cans and human feces litter the high desert. "We just need a little show of force," he says. "We need to stop them entering illegally and address the question of immigration." As he picks up a section of the twisted barbed fence that has been stomped into the ground, Mr. Vance says he's as angry at his own government as he is at the illegals. "By setting themselves up as vigilantes, the ranchers are just one more obstacle to be overcome," said University of California's Mr. Cornelius. "The real issue is U.S. immigration policy."

Mr. Cornelius says the U.S. government's military-style border operation has exacerbated the problem. The death toll has soared.

"It has not done anything to reduce the hiring of workers by American employers," he said. "There are more undocumented workers today than before the buildup started."

Despite the U.S.'s melting pot philosophy, Americans have historically been skeptical of immigration. In 1955, 39 per cent of Americans said immigration should be cut, 37 per cent said it should be held at the same level, and a paltry 13 per cent said quotas should be increased. By the early 1980s, a record 65 per cent demanded immigration be slashed, while 27 per cent said it should be maintained at a low level.

Paradoxically, when pollsters asked whether immigration was beneficial in the past, voters overwhelmingly agreed.

"Americans are of two minds," said Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank. "They think immigrants take jobs Americans won't take or don't want," she said, "but they are concerned that they will end up on welfare."

Given that the average individual income in Mexico is $5,000 U.S. -- compared with $30,200 U.S. in the States and Canada's $21,700 U.S. -- there is no shortage of people willing to jump.

Mexican president-elect Vicente Fox wants a European-style common labour market to be phased in over an 11-year period. Roger Barnett, a 57-year-old rancher linked to many of the armed encounters in the past year, wants the military to be posted at Douglas to stop illegals from scaling the fence. Each weekend he and his brother, Don, patrol his 8,800-hectare cattle ranch, armed and ready to stop any border crossers. He boasts he has rounded up 4,000 to date, 176 alone on a good weekend.

A booster of the National Rifle Association, Mr. Barnett said he wants U.S. troops to "invade Mexico and take it over" before the Mexican bring the U.S. "to its knees." "It's going to be anarchy. There'll be fighting in the streets before too long," he said. "If the government can't take care of it, we'll have a civil war."

GRAPHIC: Color Photo: Hilary MacKenzie, The Ottawa Citizen ; U.S., Border Patrol agent Brent Barber takes information from a Mexican, who tried to illegally cross into Arizona near Douglas.; Map:, (Arizona); Color Photo: Hilary MacKenzie, The Ottawa Citizen ;, American rancher Larry Vance, holding barbed wire straddling the, border that has been stomped into the ground, says he's as angry at, his own government as he is at illegal migrants.