Arizona's high desert: where border politics become a harsh, almost sinister experience

The Guardian, Tuesday 7 October 2014 15.59 EDT
Paul Lewis

Finds of migrant corpses on border land make security a hot issue but elsewhere lack of immigration reform fuels frustration

Cattle veterinarian Gary Thrasher stands beside part of the rudimentary border barrier in southern Arizona. Photograph: Paul Lewis/The Guardian

Gary Thrasher has found migrants on his roof, in his truck, in the shower in his barn. They leave a trail of backpacks and water bottles by the mesquite tree on his land, three miles from the Mexican border.

He and other ranchers often stumble across migrants, dead or alive. He once took a call from neighbours in Hereford, Arizona, who asked him to check out a man who was sleeping under a bush and making their dog bark. “I went out there and his eyeballs were picked out and he was deader than a brick,” he said.

There was no investigation. Border authorities just came and scooped up the body, like roadkill.

The high desert of Arizona is where border politics become a harsh, sometimes sinister experience – one that threatens to unseat two of the most vulnerable House Democrats standing for re-election in November’s midterm elections.

Republicans have identified two neighbouring districts in southern Arizona as their best prospect for picking up seats in the House of Representatives.

Both have been on the frontline of the decades-simmering debate over the border and immigration, one that was reignited in early summer following the surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children arriving in the US through Texas.

The most closely fought seat, Arizona’s second congressional district, runs along an 80-mile stretch of the US-Mexico border, and include Cochise County, where Trasher lives.

Thrasher, 70, is a cattle veterinarian, serving ranches along a 600-mile stretch from Sasabe, Arizona, to Presidio, Texas. He works with some 400 ranchers, keeping him tuned into the political headwinds among rural Arizonans who share their land with drug cartels and human smugglers.

In the past, Thrasher has been a vocal supporter of the Democratic congressman Ron Barber, and his predecessor, Gabrielle Giffords.

Recently, however, he led a clutch of ranchers who publicly jumped ship, appearing on a stinging TV ad for the Republican challenger, Martha McSally. “Ron Barber just isn’t getting the job done,” Thrasher said in the ad.

Cattle ranchers are not an especially large voting block in Barber’s district. But in Arizona – which has a growing population of elderly, white people from out of state – ranchers in cowboy hats who trace their families back to a time when the land was still Mexico swing a sentimental punch.

And they are hurting the Democratic incumbent. “I’ve had a lot of compliments,” Thasher said. “I haven’t had one person call me a backstabber or anything else, except for Ron.”

Taking time out of a book-reading event for children in downtown Tucson, Barber confessed to being baffled by Thrasher’s decision.

“I said to him: ‘Is it because I’m a Democrat and Obama’s a Democrat?’” Barber said, recalling a conversation they had had 24 hours earlier. He told the rancher: “You said I didn’t do anything to help secure the border. You know that isn’t true.”

Finding corpses

The story of why Thrasher and the other ranchers turned against Barber encapsulates the challenge for centrist Democrats in southern border states in November.

On the one hand, they feel under pressure to be border hawks and mollify constituents who say they feel insecure, despite a recent fall in people crossing the border illegally.

Yet tough talk about clamping down on illegal immigration risks alienating Arizona’s growing block of Latinos, who do not want Democrats to take their support for granted.

Thrasher says many ranchers are in fact open to some immigration reforms.

Many ranchers have strong connections with Mexico. Some are married into Mexican families. Others employ undocumented migrants on their ranches and would prefer them to have legal status to work.

A cattle-feeding facility Thrasher owns was once raided by a heavily armed unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. “They took every one of my employees, including my secretary – a little skinny girl – and put their hands on the front of the car out in the parking lot,” he recalled.

The single undocumented worker they caught was a Belgian falsely claiming to be a Cajun from Louisiana. “I said what the hell is he, a terrorist?” Thrasher said. “Is Belgium a country we have to worry about?”

Yet while some ranchers are open to providing a legal basis through which people who entered the US illegally can work, they want the border made safer. As border security has been tightened in recent years, and the flow of migrant workers has declined, routes across the border have been controlled by violent drug cartels.

Meanwhile, ranchers complain that US Customs and Border Patrol is being mismanaged from Washington, embroiled in a futile and often comical battle against drug gangs.

To prove his point, Thrasher gave the Guardian a tour of a 20-mile stretch of border near his home. The most heavily policed section of the border, near of the town of Naco, is protected by 15ft reinforced-steel fence that runs along the southern end of a ranch belonging to John Ladd and his father, Jack.

In the last two years, 40 trucks suspected to have been packed with drugs have smashed through the 12-mile stretch of the fence. Drug mules repeatedly just clamber over or under or through the barrier.

Ten miles west, beyond the the Coronado Pass, the border might as well not exist; instead, it is marked by a waist-high steel barrier and barbed wire leaving gaping holes large enough to wriggle through.

Much to the annoyance of ranchers, the Border Patrol has chosen to stand back, using road checkpoints, CCTV cameras, sensors, radar and drones to stalk intruders once they cross the line.

Ranchers claim that border agents carelessly drive trucks over pastures in pursuit of the migrants and drug mules, knocking down fences and damaging water pipes, in a tactic which is as inhumane as it is inefficient.

“It is kinda like a sick prison movie,” he said. “They let them come across and chase them until they drop. That’s what kills a lot of people.” He added: “It is not a pleasant thing to find a corpse up there while you’re ranching cattle.”

Thrasher said one of his friends is still haunted by the time he discovered the body of a young woman and was asked by the sheriff to stay with the corpse overnight to keep away the coyotes and the buzzards.

“He stayed there all night but the scavengers still got to it,” Thrasher said. “He told me it wasn’t so horrible picking up her arm that was torn off. But it bothered him – and still does now, nightly – that when he looked at the lady’s hand he saw her watch and it was still ticking.”

Fire in the belly

Ask Thrasher and the other ranchers why they no longer support their congressman and they struggle to give a clear answer. Reflecting on his betrayal, Thrasher said: “I like him, Ron, that’s the worst part of it. And I know he’s done a lot for the border.”

Driving past in a truck, Jack Ladd, 88, who appeared in the same pro-McSally TV ad, said of Barber: “He’s not bad. He listened to us. He did his best.”

Barber is rated among the most independent Democratic congressmen in Washington and has made dealing with border issues his legislative focus.

He has saved a crucial radar system that detects light aircraft used by Mexican drug cartels, elbowed himself on to the crucial House homeland security committee, sponsored a slew of tough border security bills and helped get 170 extra customs agents to Arizona. He was recently endorsed by the US Border Patrol Council, a union for the agency’s employees.

In contrast, his campaign argues that McSally has failed to even properly articulate her border policies.

Yet in repeated interviews in Cochise County, rural voters told the Guardian that for all of Barber’s efforts, they feel he fails to deliver the thumping rhetoric constituents expect.

In contrast to the bullish, extroverted Giffords, who resigned her seat after being critically injured in a shooting, Barber has a soft-spoken, bumbling persona. He comes across as considerate and cautious.

“He’s scared of his shadow,” said one woman who brought her horse to Thrasher’s barn for stitches.

McSally, the first female US air force pilot to go into combat and a frequent guest on Fox News, is portraying herself as a tough, no-nonsense candidate – a conservative Giffords.

“All we want is a congressman that can convince people about what is going on down here,” said Thrasher, summing up the local feeling. “She [McSally] has got a lot more fire in her belly than Ron does.”

Latino community

Some 100 miles north, on the outskirts of Tucson, Barber’s middle-of-the road positioning is beginning to alienate an arguably even more crucial voting block.

In the 2012 election, Barber beat McSally by fewer than 3,000 votes. Latinos, who lean heavily Democratic, comprised an estimated 12% of voters, according the opinion research group Latino Decisions. That translates to 34,000 votes, more than 10 times Barber’s margin of victory.

A large Hispanic turnout is a crucial component of Barber’s path to victory. Yet in Arizona, as elsewhere in the US, Latino voters feel disheartened by Democrats’ failure to make much headway on immigration reform, and President Barack Obama’s recent decision to postpone an executive order expected to broaden the number of suspended deportations.

They also say the summer’s border crisis fuelled an anti-immigrant sentiment that Democrats have not done enough to distance themselves from.

Arizona has long been home to some of the most draconian anti-immigrant policies in the US, such as the much-maligned SB1070, which requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone stopped or arrested if they suspect that person might be undocumented.

One of the law’s most prominent backers is the state’s House speaker, Andy Tobin, who is the Republican candidate standing against the Democratic incumbent, Ann Kirkpatrick, in one of the other most hotly contested house races in the country, Arizona’s first congressional district.

Tobin’s primary campaign – which took place at the height of the hysteria over the thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border – was dominated by the so-called border crisis.

Amid the intense debate over the influx of children, Tobin appeared to warn voters the children could be infected with Ebola.

When the Guardian caught up with Tobin during a campaign stop on a golf course north of Tucson, he backtracked from the Ebola remarks, saying he had used “the wrong word” when raising concerns valid concerns about disease-infected children.

But he insisted border security remained a priority in the midterms and said the surge in children had fuelled concerns about border safety. “That kind of lit the fire,” he said.

In Arizona, it seems Democratic candidates are most at risk of being burned. Both Barber and Kirkpatrick support comprehensive immigration reform, but both have recently angered Latino voters in their districts by saying they oppose the White House taking further executive action on immigration without congressional support.

Local observers say that Kirkpatrick has avoided becoming embroiled in the anti-immigrant fervour, but Barber, while remaining committed to comprehensive immigration reform, has succumbed to the pressure.

Around the time the border crisis first struck, Barber sought to prove his tough credentials by joining only four other Democrats in the House in voting for an amendment put forward by the right-wing Republican, Steve King of Iowa.

The amendment allocated $5m to the Department of Justice to investigate the release of immigrants who had been convicted of crimes and was not the most inflammatory measure proposed by King, who is the bete noire of immigration rights activists.

Several Latino campaigners in Tucson brought up Barber’s vote for the amendment as a sign of his betrayal of their community – while acknowledging he would be significantly better for their community than McSally, who supports SB1070 and opposes the immigration reform Latinos in the district want enacted.

On one hot street not far from Barber’s office, three young volunteers of Mexican descent were going door to door encouraging Latinos to register to vote.

They asked that their names not be used, citing the fact they were working for a non-partisan organisation. “We know that Ron Barber is the best candidate – that’s why we are out here six days a week,” said a 19-year-old woman. “But there’s a lot of disappointment with Democrats.”

Her 21-year-old friend added: “It feels like he is playing for both sides.”