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Arizona couple near border have complex view of illegal immigration

Longtime rancher Jim Chilton and his wife, Sue, support reforms but also a secure border — to keep migrants from risking their lives and to keep out drug smugglers.

March 21, 2013|By Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times

ARIVACA, Ariz. — When Jim Chilton tends to the cattle on his 50,000-acre ranch in southern Arizona, he packs at least two guns and no less than 5 gallons of water.

A pistol and a rifle are to ward off the drug smugglers who encroach on his land abutting the U.S.-Mexico border.

Drums of water in the bed of his Ford truck are for thirsty border crossers lured by U.S. jobs.

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Unlike much of the heavily fortified border fence in Arizona, the only barriers separating Chilton's ranch from Mexico are four strands of rusty barbed wire, strung along steel posts.

Chilton, a fifth-generation rancher, and his wife, Sue, are on the front lines of border security. They live it every day.

The debate over border security and illegal immigration sometimes gets ugly and shrill. But the Chiltons have developed a nuanced view of the border, gingerly balancing their desire for security — he's 73, she's 70 — with the reality of having desperate wanderers cross their land, starved and parched.

"We don't want corpses on our ranch," Sue Chilton said.

On a recent sunny day, Jim Chilton negotiated their truck along narrow and windy Ruby Road, the only drivable path near the border in this region about 70 miles southwest of Tucson. The dirt road snakes about 12 miles north of the border, past surveillance camera towers that loom high above gold-splashed pastures dotted with white oaks.

The couple drove by javelina hunters encamped on their ranch as well as Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian group dropping off water for border crossers. Jim Chilton slowed down as he passed both parties, waving hello and sometimes stopping to chat.

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"It's just good people trying to do good," he said of the Samaritans.

The rancher recalled the time he came across a teenage boy who begged for water.

"Agua! Agua!" the boy cried out at him. Jim Chilton obliged, and the boy asked how far it was to St. Louis.

Jim Chilton shook his head at the memory, lamenting how unprepared many of the border crossers are before heading into the desert.

Although he respects the Border Patrol agents in the region, he said, he doesn't understand why they won't fortify and build a substantial border fence along the Arivaca region, including the five miles of international boundary alongside his ranch.

It's inhumane, he said, to allow border crossers to walk in easily through the border, putting their lives at risk from cold nights and hot days. Many are apprehended farther inland anyway.

"The border should be secured at the border," he said.

The couple lament a recently shuttered Border Patrol outpost, the agency's only significant presence in that area. The outpost, which operated near the ranch, was closed because of budget cuts.

The couple have even offered to lease 20 acres of their land — about 500 yards from the border — to Border Patrol officials for $1 a year for an outpost. They said the government had not taken them up on the offer.

Scraggly mesquite branches sticking into the roadway grasped at Jim Chilton's truck, shrieking as he turned off to a side road. At a clearing, he got out and crouched beneath a gnarled oak crowned with enough leaves to form a canopy that veiled a dumping ground.

Empty cans of tuna, Spam and Mexican-brand juices littered the ground, along with electrolyte containers, energy drinks and a cheap brandy bottle. There was also a sole-less shoe, a backpack and a single sock.

"We've got lots of sites like this on our ranch," he said.

Nearby were distressed and sun-bleached burlap sacks — all that was left of drug smugglers who dropped bundles of marijuana after spotting Jim Chilton climb out of his truck with his 12-gauge shotgun. That was about two months ago.

It's unclear whether those men were armed, but Chilton knows some smugglers are.

"The problem is the druggers out there have AK-47s," he said. He looked around at the surrounding mountains and hills.

"You have no idea who is watching us now," he said before turning back toward his truck.

Chilton, with speech patterns reminiscent of Mr. Rogers — if Mr. Rogers spoke with a twang — has ranching in his blood. His father was a dairy farmer in the Phoenix area, and he grew up in the life until he left for college, where he met Sue. He made a good amount of money working in finance in Los Angeles, before returning to ranching and buying some land in the 1980s and the rest of it about a decade later. He owns a couple of thousand acres outright and leases the majority of the 50,000 acres from the state and federal government for cattle grazing.

It used to be that border crossers were simply part of the normal rhythm of life, Sue Chilton said. People would come and go freely between the Mexican state of Sonora and Arizona to work.

"You'd feed them and give them water and directions," Jim Chilton said.

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