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What They Really Need Is a Wyatt Earp

Immigration: The situation along the border in Arizona has reached a flash point.

May 07, 2000|SERGIO MUNOZ | Sergio Munoz, an editorial writer for The Times, writes an occasional column on the Americas

It's an ugly range war, something out of the pages of the Wild West. On one side, playing the roles of the old cattlemen, are some ranchers who say they are mad as hell and are not taking it anymore. One of them, Roger Barnett, recently told USA Today that he and his brother apprehended 174 illegal immigrants one weekend on his 22,000-acre ranch and turned them over to the Border Patrol. Barnett was quoted as saying that he had detained thousands of trespassers over the last two years and that he was "prepared to take a life if I have to."

Echoes of the gunfight at the OK Corral?

On the other side are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of immigrants who have filtered across the border and are moving northward into the Douglas-Nogales region of Arizona, trashing ranchers' fields with empty plastic water bottles and human waste, cutting the fences that stand in their way and using the ranchers' valuable and scarce water resources.

Trying to keep the peace between these two sides is the overwhelmed Border Patrol, which has all but lost control of the Mexican border in Arizona. Effective border control programs in California and Texas have shifted the action, particularly to the Douglas-Nogales region, which has been flooded with many hundreds of illegal crossings every day.

The ranchers claim they have every right to stop people who trespass on their properties. This may be so, but obviously law enforcement should be making the arrests. If that's not working, then the federal government must help by providing more border agents. An initial step already has been taken: The Border Patrol has been authorized to place another 180 agents in the area, which should help.

But what about the times when, as some ranchers admit, they leave their own property to go searching for illegal immigrants on the Arizona highways? This is clearly illegal, not to mention immoral. And what about the infamous "Neighborhood Ranch Watch" brochure, an anonymous publication that initially seemed like a joke but which is being taken very seriously by law enforcement and political officials in the area? The brochure, written in a jocular style, seeks to lure people to join ranchers and have some "fun in the sun" looking for immigrants with halogen spotlights and infrared scopes. The mayor of the city of Douglas has said he fears that the brochure will bring to his city "militia types and vigilantes."

It's no surprise that the news of the hunt has traveled to California, and now some of the folks who brought us anti-immigration Proposition 187 reportedly are traveling to Arizona to support the ranchers there in their efforts to protect their property. Barbara Coe, co-author of Proposition 187 and head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which has been talking about a new statewide initiative in California that would deny illegal immigrants most public services, told La Opinion last week that members of the group would go to Douglas for a demonstration May 13 to support the ranchers and "protect the rest of the nation from illegal immigration."

And just who will protect the nation from Coe and the other members of the coalition, I wonder?

This week, the Mexican secretary of foreign affairs, Rosario Green, announced that Mexico has retained lawyers in the U.S. to gather evidence that would allow Mexico to sue over human rights abuses of immigrants. This is a step in the right direction. But Mexico also should be helping control the flow over the border by cracking down on the "coyotes" who--for a high price--transport immigrants illegally.

On our side of the border, we've got to stop hypocritically demonizing immigrants on the one hand, and, on the other, giving them jobs because we need cheap help.

Obviously, if some strong action isn't taken in Arizona, someone will get seriously hurt or killed. Federal, state and local authorities must get their acts together to control the situation before a tragedy like that happens.

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