Border Crackdowns and the Battle for Arizona

A rancher's murder became the political catalyst for a tough new law aimed at illegal immigrants. But the state's controversial crackdown not only won't solve the border crisis — it may make it worse

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

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Regardless of who killed Krentz, two things seem quite clear. First, if we are at war with the flood of drug smugglers and human traffic coming across the borderlands, then we are not winning that war. And that's Washington's fault, not Arizona's. Second, SB1070 will do little to solve the problem at the border. Indeed, it may only make the problem worse.

On the Borderline
An April 22 meeting between the border patrol and residents of Rodeo, N.M., a small ranching town at the northern end of the San Bernardino Valley, was unusually testy. A local rancher pulled me aside by a folding table with cookies and juice on it to say his house had been broken into 18 times; he didn't want to give his name because of fear of reprisal from the Mexican cartels. Krentz's sister Susan and brother-in-law Louie Pope were in attendance. Pope later stood up and told the crowd, "This is our last stand. If we lose this time, then God help us."

The most common complaint of the evening was that the border patrol doesn't actually patrol the border. They let migrants and smugglers advance as far north as Rodeo, which is 60 miles north of Mexico, before apprehending them. "If you were running a ranch like this, chasing the cattle but not minding the broken fence, you'd never get anywhere," said a rancher.

Terry Kranz, the agent in charge of the Lordsburg, N.M., border-patrol sector, told the crowd that he lacks the manpower to do anything but concentrate on certain "choke points" in the interior. "It would take 1,040 agents to post people all along the 81 miles of Lordsburg sector's border. We have 250," he said.

The border's increased militarization (the border patrol has doubled since 2001, to 20,000 agents; there are now more than 600 miles of border fence and wall) has actually hurt the San Bernardino Valley. That border problem said to be solved in San Diego and El Paso? It moved here, to remote ranchlands where even the plant names — catclaw, saltbush, snakeweed — sound forbidding. So even as overall arrests in the Tucson sector were down 24% last year because of beefed-up enforcement and fewer people heading there for jobs in a recession, Kranz told the ranchers that their valley was a hot spot, "a seam that has been ignored for too long." Locals say it's not just cut fences and broken waterlines, although Krentz once testified that such vandalism had cost him some $8 million over a five-year period. It's also car theft, home invasion and now, perhaps, murder.

The biggest problem for the ranchers and border patrol isn't the valleys. It's the mountains. The Chiricahua and Peloncillo ranges, a series of rounded volcanic peaks, some nearly 10,000 ft. high, have hosted outlaws and rebels since the days of Geronimo and Cochise. These days, in border-patrol-speak, the U.S. does not have "operational control" of the ranges. That control belongs to the smugglers and drug cartels, whose scouts camp out on the peaks, sometimes for weeks at a time, and observe the movement of the border patrol in the valleys below. Until the border patrol receives some combat-grade helicopters that can drop agents into the mountains, Kranz told the Rodeo group, the cartels "own the mountaintops. They know where we're going before we do."

Cracking Down on the Cartels

Just a few hours before governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070 into law — a move that put Arizona in headlines around the world and unleashed criticism from figures from President Obama ("misguided") to Shakira ("inhuman") — Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic Congresswoman for southern Arizona, announced a potentially important bill that got absolutely no attention at all. Part of the problem may be the bill's title: the Stored-Value Device Registration and Reporting Act of 2010 is its short name. Co-sponsored by Republican Representative Brian Bilbray of California, it would regulate stored-value devices, which include certain types of smart cards and even cell phones that can receive and hold electronic funds. The devices are a favored money-laundering tool of the drug cartels, and cracking down on them could impede smugglers' ability to buy weapons and create havoc in Arizona.

Terry Goddard, Arizona's attorney general and the leading Democrat running for governor, told me that Gifford's bill is the type of law "that produces a result, that pushes back against crime on the Mexican border." SB1070, he said, "doesn't do that at all." By requiring state and local police to consider Arizona's estimated 460,000 undocumented residents as active suspects, said Goddard, SB1070 distracts police from focusing on real criminals and pushes workers further into the shadows, and therefore "actually makes the cartels stronger."

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