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Ranchers on Border Raise Tensions Over Migrants

Property: Some, saying they are protecting their land, detain illegal crossers. Mexico plans to protest actions at talks in Washington, and U.S. officials worry about vigilantism.


The detention of undocumented immigrants by Arizona ranchers is sparking new fears of violence and placing their arid grazing lands at the heart of a binational furor over a flood of illegal border crossings.

The Mexican government, unhappy that some armed U.S. ranchers have detained immigrants crossing private property near the border town of Douglas, Ariz., has assumed an increasingly critical stance in recent weeks and is expected to raise the matter during annual talks with the United States this week in Washington.

"The issue of the Mexicans and the Arizona ranchers is seen, without a doubt, as a red alert that could generate a relatively tense situation," Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green told reporters in Mexico City last Friday.

Green will be in Washington on Thursday as part of a delegation of Mexican Cabinet ministers who will meet with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other U.S. officials on several issues confronting the two nations.

The immigration controversy escalated last month with the appearance of an anonymous leaflet inviting winter vacationers to park their recreational vehicles on border ranches to help property owners guard against immigrants crossing the border unlawfully.

The two-page leaflet, unsigned but bearing a pair of e-mail addresses, promotes a Neighborhood Ranch Watch program in which visitors are encouraged to act as lookouts and report suspicious people to local authorities or the U.S. Border Patrol.

"Come and stay at the ranches and help keep trespassers from destroying private property. Be a part of the American Way Team," says the leaflet, which proposes that participants be deputized in order to make arrests legally.

It is not known whether the brochure is serious or satirical. Ranchers in the Douglas area, 120 miles southeast of Tucson, insist that they do not know who distributed them, and Border Patrol officials say they know of no one who has acted on it. Queries sent to both e-mail addresses listed on the brochure went unanswered.

But the leaflet has received widespread attention in Mexico, where news accounts have decried it as an invitation for vigilantes to hunt immigrants diverted to the area by tighter border controls elsewhere. The Mexican foreign ministry has called on U.S. authorities to halt detentions of illegal immigrants by U.S. civilians and to punish those who engage in acts of vigilantism.

The foreign ministry said it has tallied 24 instances during the past year in which armed ranchers in Cochise County have detained groups of illegal immigrants. Two of those incidents took place on highways outside private ranches, the foreign ministry said.

The president of Mexico's government human rights commission has asked human rights officials from the United Nations to investigate possible abuses along the border in Arizona.

Officials in Arizona worry the escalating tensions will explode. "The situation is just boiling," said Carol Capas, spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Department.

Cochise County's Board of Supervisors on Monday urged Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull to send National Guard troops to bolster the work of federal agents by helping transport immigrants who have been arrested by the Border Patrol, maintaining patrol vehicles and handling some administrative duties.

"I don't want to regress into a vigilante state like the 1880s and have human life taken over the protection of private property. It's almost getting to that level," board Chairman Mike Palmer said Tuesday. "It's very volatile."

Mexican media reported over the weekend that ranchers near the border town of Sasabe, Ariz., had fired upon and wounded an immigrant, but Mexican and U.S. officials said they have been unable to verify the story.

Ranchers say they will do what they must to safeguard ranches until the U.S. government can stem the growing flow. Border agents in the Tucson region have made more than 405,500 arrests for unlawful crossing since Oct. 1--a 42% increase over the same period last year.

On the ranches, groups of the immigrants have been held and turned over to sheriff's deputies or border agents by property owners, some wearing sidearms.

"They're sick and tired" of immigrants leaving empty water jugs and other trash behind, said rancher Roger Barnett, who says he and his brother have rounded up nearly 3,000 illegal crossers on their 22,000-acre property near the border over the last two years. "Hopefully the federal government will get something done. We're American citizens down here."

Barnett said that he does not know who published the brochure, but that he has received--and declined--offers from people willing to stand guard on his ranch.

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