Build roads not walls, says rancher by Tobey Schmidt

Ranch land in southern Arizona acts as the backyard to America’s illegal immigration. Dan Bell, rancher and co-operator of ZZ Cattle Corporation, spends many of his working days fixing what is broken as a result of people crossing through his land.

Located alongside the US-Mexico border and spread across about 35,000 acres of land, ZZ Cattle Corporation is sometimes an unavoidable part of a Mexican-immigrant’s path from Mexico to America.

“Most of the times we just say good morning and go about our way,” Bell said explaining his typical actions when he comes across people on his land. While Bell says he’d like to focus on the security aspect of protecting our border, he doesn’t think a wall is a good idea.

Dan Bell, finished his day at his home and ranch, ZZ Cattle Coporation in Nogales, Ariz. on Dec. 1, 2016. The ranch is roughly 35,000 acres and sits directly on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. (Photograph by Tobey Schmidt)

A big part of President Donald Trump’s campaign was issues with immigration and how to end it. Trump stated many times that he has a plan to build a wall along the border.

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall,” Trump said in his presidential announcement speech back in June of 2015. ”Mark my words.”

Instead, Bell would like to see more money put into an infrastructure such as road systems and observation points where technology can be used, as well as manpower, he said. “That would enable you to get your manpower closer to the border,” explained Bell. “Because what the problem is now is there are no roads that run actually along the border for the most part.”

Border patrol will often use four-wheelers, or ATV’s, to get around when they’re not in their trucks. Bell said that on many sections along the border the terrain is too rough to be reached without a road, even for their ATV’s.

When George W. Bush created the “Safe Fence Act” in 2006 it cost about $3 million per mile for the fence. Trump’s wall is estimated to cost billions.

All costs and complications put aside, if Trump’s proposal of a wall actually went through, do you think it’d help? “I don’t think so,” said Dean Fish, who ranches at Sante Fe Ranch, spreading across 4,200 acres just 6 miles north of the border. His personal viewpoint is that this country needs legal immigration. “That’s what this country is founded upon.”

Dean Fish, Ph.D., poses with his horse on Sante Fe Ranch in Nogales, Ariz. Fish and his horse had just spent the morning herding cattle from the one pasture to another. (Photograph by Tobey Schmidt)

While Bell agrees that legal immigration “definitely needs to happen,” he first wants to spend his energy working on the security aspect of it. “I’d like to see us do concrete things along the border,” he said. “I’m kind of a big advocate of getting access and using technology and getting manpower to the border, rather than a wall.”

Even though Fish ranches north of the border, he also experiences the effects of immigration. “There’s quite a bit of traffic on the land,” he said. “There’s traffic that does come across there and a lot of it we don’t see, a lot of it’s at night.”

Fish said that he typically doesn’t acknowledge the situation when he does witness it happening. “They leave us alone, we leave them alone, and whatever happens, happens,” he said. Interactions may cause retaliation. Fish said that it’s just much easier to ignore it, and his job as a rancher is not law enforcement.

Law enforcement, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protections patrol agents are stationed around the county in an attempt to catch illegal immigrants or drug smugglers. According to data from the U.S. Border Patrol, the number of apprehensions in the Tucson area, which includes the city of Nogales, has decreased from 87,915 in 2014 to 63,397 in 2015. Tucson also has the most agents staffed than any other city in the country. At 3,991 agents, they have almost 42 times more staff than Miami, Florida and almost 10 times more than Detroit, Michigan.

The Nogales sector has their own staff member who works directly with ranchers in the region. Stefanie Hendrickson, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection ranch liaison, has been at this particular position since August.

As the liaison Hendrickson calls the ranchers usually once a week to check in and see if they’re experiencing an increase in traffic or if they’re noticing anything that border patrol might not be noticing with their technology.

Though the ranchers are given the dispatch number to directly call an agent, sometimes they already have a more personal relationship with Hendrickson. “I’ve had ranchers call me at home about that there’s bodies on the ranch or that they’ve stumbled across marijuana bundles,” she said.

How often does she get calls like that? Maybe a couple times a week, Hendrickson said.

After one of those calls she’ll usually try to pinpoint the location. “Because a lot of ranchers—they want to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons, you know—retaliation, they have to live down here, so I’ll call radio dispatch and let them know,” Hendrickson said.

Since part of the land that Bell runs his ranch on is leased by the forest service, he must do his part to keep it in shape. The forest service requires them to maintain an operating structure within each grazing lease. Bell uses four different grazing leases, and each one has several different pastures.

To maintain the land they have the cattle concentrated in one pasture for a period of time while they let the others rest. That’s why it’s so important for them to make sure that their cattle are where they should be.

“We get fences cut and cattle will go where they’re not supposed to,” said Bell. He said it takes illegal immigrants, “literally seconds” to cut through four strands of barbed wire. It’s not, however, as easy to fix them.

The fences were put up between the 1930s and 1950s, so Bell says that they are rusty and very hard to fix once they do get cut.

The forest service has helped. Bell recalled that about eight years ago the forest service gave them some material to rebuild part of the fence. The cost for labor was not included, so for that he split the cost with his neighboring rancher on the Mexican side of the fence.

The neighbor in Mexico and Bell are in touch quite a bit. In fact, they talk about every couple weeks. When fences get cut the cattle are able to pass through to the other side. When one of the ranchers notices that some of their livestock is missing, they’ll call the other.

If this happens, they help each other out by looking to see if the cattle had wandered across the border due to a cut fence. Although it’s not usually a part of every ranchers’ job, these tasks are pertinent to a rancher on the border.

“We get two aspects of it,” Bells said explaining the downside of ranching on the border. “We get the damage that occurs from the illegal activity and then we got law enforcement out there that’s trying to stop the illegal activity and so they’re out there doing things also.” He added that it’s a lot of burden put on them because of all the time they spend related to border issues.

According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection report, “Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2017,” there has been an increase of apprehensions in recent months, including an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied children and individuals in families apprehended. They’ve also seen an increase in people seeking refuge.

There were a total of 46,195 individuals apprehended on the southwest border in October, while it was only around 39,000 in September and 37,000 in August, according to the data.

U.S. CBP public documents show that in 2014, more Central Americans were apprehended on the southern border than Mexicans. Central Americans outnumbered Mexicans again in 2016.

“As difficult as circumstances may be in Central and South America and the Caribbean, our borders cannot be open to illegal migration,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson in a statement. “We must, therefore, enforce the immigration laws consistent with our priorities.”

While Bell didn’t mention that he’s seen any sort of increase lately, he said that what really changed for ranches along the border were when the U.S. government implemented two operations in the 90s. They were Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector of California and Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas.

The U.S. CBP wrote that the operations proved immediate success. “Agents and technology were concentrated in specific areas, providing a ‘show of force’ to potential illegal border crossers,” it reads from the U.S. CBP website.

These operations, however, caused problems for the city of Nogales. As a result of a major increase in crossings through the city, a wall was built throughout the Nogales city limits.

“Where the wall ended, was on ranches out here,” Bell said.

This was when ranchers like Bell began to see a huge increase in traffic. While they were used to seeing groups of maybe two or three people, they were suddenly seeing groups of more than fifty. Bell said it has since calmed down a bit since then.

Hendrickson spoke on behalf of the U.S. CBP when asked if she thought Trump’s hypothetical wall would help prevent illegal immigration. “The border patrol uses infrastructure, technology and personal to effectively patrol and secure the border,” she said. “The bollard fence and infrastructure is just one piece, or tool, that we use. It is not the end all.”

It seems there are two different paths that people are hoping Homeland Security takes. Spend money to build a wall, or spend money creating roads and increasing technology.

Trump did, however, insist that Mexico would pay for the wall. After Trump and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto met in August for a press conference though, it didn’t seem that would be the case.

Shortly after the press conference Peña Nieto tweeted, “At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.

Though some may still argue that a “35 to 40 foot” wall, as Trump suggested, is the best plan for protecting this country’s border, Hendrickson, the U.S. CBP liaison in Nogales argues the practicality of it.

She said, “If he builds a 20 foot wall, they’ll build a 21 foot ladder.”

Tobey Schmidt is a journalism student at the University of Arizona. She can be contacted at (

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