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The Border Project: Wrangling the border

Wrangling the Border from Sarah Tung on Vimeo.

DOUGLAS, Ariz. — It is now common to see border-patrol agents barrel along the dry, rocky roads in their distinct white trucks, leaving clouds of dusty dirt and bouncing pebbles in their wake. Despite at least one complaint about their driving speed, the rural residents they serve and protect have appreciated their increased presence.

“I think without border patrol, we wouldn’t even be here,” said Wendy Glenn, a rancher in southeast Arizona. “We were just inundated with people and trash.”

More than half a year after local rancher Robert Krentz was shot and killed on his property in Arizona, efforts to increase border security have improved, according to many ranchers in the state.

For the last century or more, ranchers have had a “live-and-let-live” relationship with migrants, said Tom Sheridan, an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona. But the large influx of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border 10 or 12 years ago was overwhelming to both the ranchers and border agents.

Cindy Coping, president of the Southern Arizona Cattlemen’s Protective Association, witnessed this progression firsthand. Coping, 54, and her husband have owned Malpais Ranch for 15 years — long enough to see the influx of migrants from across the border.

When the Copings first bought their property, only a few people made it to their land 55 miles north of the border in the central desert, she said. Then, about 10 years ago, they started to travel in large groups and vehicles. In the last two years, the presence of drug cartels has created a new border dynamic.

“Now (immigrants) are coerced into dealing with the drug cartels,” Coping said. “They’re incredibly violent people. It’s impacted both us and the people coming across, too.”

Coping estimated she has had thousands of interactions with the illegal immigrants who cross the border through the nearby reservation. “We’ve saved dozens from certain death and dehydration, and some of them we just give them food and water, and send them on their way.”

According to Coping, border patrol is now doing a better job than before, but she is still worried about her personal safety. “There’s just too much violence and it surrounds us all the time,” she said.

In Cochise County, ranchers have also witnessed a stronger presence of border agents in their backyards.

“The border patrol has had a very poor presence in the past,” said Anna Magoffin. “Whereas now … (with) the resources they have, if we call, they come.”

But this change came months too late. In recent years, Arizona ranchers, including Krentz and his wife, had been “asking and pleading” for federal help at the U.S.-Mexico border for years, according to Mary Jo Rideout, a rancher from Red Rock.

Pat King, who owns a ranch near Sasabe, Ariz., recalled the underwhelming government response.

“I wrote a letter to the president (and) to our legislators,” she said. “The silence was deafening. It just keeps going on year after year, and we don’t see an end in sight.”

It wasn’t until Krentz’s death in late March, as well as the overwhelming national attention the SB 1070 created, that politicians began to pay attention to the large contingent of unified ranchers calling for border security.

“When (Krentz) got killed, we all just said, ‘That’s the end of it. We’re tired of that crap,’ ” Cochise County rancher Gary Thrasher said. “We took (this election year) as the ideal time to … say something.”

Even with Homeland Security’s stronger presence at the border, illegal immigration and drug smuggling are still considered major safety concerns.

“Ranchers living along the border … face very real threats,” Sheridan said. “They never know whether the next group of people they meet are just poor people (looking for jobs), or whether they’re drug smugglers. Their perception of threat is very real.”

King, who lives about 35 miles north of the border on Anvil Ranch, said it has recently become more dangerous. “We’re seeing more and more of the groups going through, and they’re armed.” South of interstates 10 and 80, it’s as if there is no law, she said.

Despite the threat of imminent danger, most ranchers, including King, staunchly refuse to leave.

“We have a remarkable country, and there is no other country in the world I want to live … and by golly, I’m going to fight for it,” she said.