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Day 13: Ranching in a smugglers’ corridor

April 4, 2017
Rancher Jim Chilton puts on his hat before heading out to survey his 50,000-acre ranch in Arivaca, about 80 miles southwest of Tucson, Ariz., Sunday, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Rancher Jim Chilton puts on his hat before heading out to survey his 50,000-acre ranch in Arivaca, about 80 miles southwest of Tucson, Ariz., Sunday, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

President Donald Trump’s promise to put a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border will depend largely on decisions made in Washington. But there are lots of people in Arizona who are doing all they can to either stop it or get it built.

In the latter camp are Jim and Sue Chilton, whose property is ground zero for smugglers and migrants crossing into the United States illegally. They’re just back from a trip to Washington, where they met with their elected representatives and told them to help Trump get it done.

We meet the Chiltons at their 50,000-acre ranch in Arivaca, about 80 miles southwest of Tucson. The property includes a 5 ½-mile stretch of border that’s marked only by a four-strand barbed wire fence.

Over the years, they’ve compiled mountains of evidence documenting the border jumpers who crisscross the ranch. Jim, bespectacled and clad in a vest and cowboy hat, hides surveillance cameras in rocks and tree canopies and keeps binders full of photos of trash left by crossers.

At the dining room table, Jim calls up videos on his laptop showing groups of men dressed head to toe in camouflage carrying backpacks through the dry scrub terrain. They march single-file with military precision, treading on rocks and in each other’s footsteps to mask their numbers. The men also slip carpeted soles over their shoes to avoid leaving footprints; Jim shows off a collection of several dozen pairs of the makeshift footwear arrayed on the porch of their home.

Once upon a time most of the people crossing the ranch were migrants. But today too much of the traffic is smugglers, and Jim says they’ve run into people armed with AK-47 rifles. He carries a rifle when he drives around the ranch in a large Ford pickup.

“With the Sinaloa cartel controlling all of the trails into my ranch, literally about 200 trails coming this way, and with their cartel scouts on the mountains, we actually live in what I call a no-man’s land,” Jim says.

Sue, a petite woman in cowboy boots, speaks fluent Spanish and has spent most of her life as a teacher and a developer of bilingual education. She says their support for a wall is a security and a humanitarian issue, and they’re not anti-immigrant. In fact they’ve installed taps on wells across the property for parched migrants to have a drink. Nonetheless, people have died on their ranch.

“No one comments on the cost of not having effective protection of the border,” Sue says. “That cost includes all those dead people, the raped and mutilated, the otherwise abused and abandoned.”

Passions are high on the other side as well.

Earlier in the day, we stumbled across a religious service and solidarity march at the border fence in downtown Nogales, Arizona, that was organized by Unitarian Universalist churches in several western states. Wearing hats for protection from the sun, dozens of people sing and march to the port of entry.

Rachel Baker is a Las Vegas minister who argues we should be tearing down the existing barrier instead of talking about building a bigger one. “I think it’s a terrible idea,” she says. “I’m not interested in separating families.”

Pamela Powers Hannley, a Democratic state lawmaker from Tucson, is also on hand. She says she was encouraged by a recent meeting with Arizona legislative colleagues and their counterparts from the Mexican state of Sonora. She says even some of the Republicans seemed unconvinced a wall is necessary.

“That meeting in Phoenix made me think, Wow, you know, there are some reasonable people here who can talk about doing things differently than settings up barriers,” Powers says.

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