Last week I ran into a friend who brought up the border fence. He seemed thrilled with the prospect. Said it would keep the illegals from coming over here to take advantage of our welfare system. I mentioned I’d been teaching on the border for over twenty years and didn’t know any immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who were on welfare. After that, the conversation died like it often does when two friends make a social agreement to be polite when complicated and opposing viewpoints arise.
I’ve heard this “illegals taking advantage of the system” argument before from other supporters of the fence, but I find it hard to swallow. I began my teaching career at an elementary school in Nogales, Arizona; a border town 200 miles west of the ranch. I taught migrant kids whose parents worked half the year picking fruits and vegetables here in the States and the other half in Mexico. Most of the families lived in tiny RVs or ramshackle single wide mobile homes on the edge of town in trailer parks owned by sketchy landlords. Parents worked long, grueling hours in the fields. Older children took care of younger siblings after school leaving little time for homework and extracurricular activities. The folks I knew would have benefited greatly from social welfare services, but to do so would have meant finding a ride to town and missing work to fill out applications in a foreign language. There was also the constant risk of deportation. At the end of the day, these immigrants didn’t have the resources or energy to scam the system. If they were lucky enough to save a little bit of money, a mother or father would purchase a fake Social Security card so he or she could work an honest job for honest pay.
Some years later I moved to Douglas, Arizona. My first job was as an English as a Second Language Instructor (ESL) at the community college where I still work. Most of my students came from Agua Prieta, a border town across the line in Mexico. Families scraped together what they could to send their children to college. For the students, it was a great privilege to be attending school in the United States. After 9/11, our program dwindled because of new immigration laws. Without proper identification, students could no longer attend classes. Dreams died, and I lost my job because of the decline in enrollment.
The college hired me back the following year as an instructor for a family literacy program where I worked in an old school on Fifth Street. Just five blocks from the port of entry, the fence was visible from my classroom window. My job was to help the women develop their English and job skills so they could find work in the community to help support their families.
I eventually moved to the Sierra Vista campus near the Fort Huachuca Army Installation where I continued to teach ESL for the college—this time to immigrants from all over the world. I supported these students while they built community and friendships around the common goal of creating better lives for their families.
I’m aware there are people who come to this country and take advantage of our system, just like I know there are people who were born and raised here who receive government assistance. Like so many times in my life, I avoided a conversation with a friend because I didn’t have the right words or maybe lacked the confidence to say what was on my mind, but I should have muddled through it. I have friends and family members who came to this country illegally. My nephew’s father is from Mexico. My husband’s father was deported to Mexico as a child during WWII when people were rounded up and sent back to their country of origin. The poet, Maya Angelo, once said her house was open to everyone, but that she would not tolerate anyone at her table who disparaged people because of their race, religion, sex, etc. That seems reasonable to me.
The proposed fence that is slated to go up in our backyard and the vitriol surrounding illegal immigration has left me gazing south out my kitchen window wondering what the hell happened to us. The actual border between the United States and Mexico is thirty-five miles south of our ranch. Several miles of paved road will get you only so far before you hit dirt. In dry weather, the ride is at best passable. Forget it when it rains. If you’re willing to risk your vehicle, the road takes you through some of the prettiest country this side of the Rio Grande. Cattle roam in tall grass and the rolling landscape is dotted with mesquite, desert oak, and yucca. Willow trees shade the enormous dirt water tanks and appear to wave at passersby on windy days. Jagged crags and deep arroyos remind visitors this is a rough, wild place. Deer, coyote, skunk, and pronghorn are easy to spot, while rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and bobcat live in anonymity.
Twenty miles out, there is a small fork in the road leading west to a Border Patrol Station that looks more like an old mining outpost than a 21st century government facility. How to actually get to the border, to the barbed wire fence that separates the United States and Mexico at the end of the road, depends on who you talk to. There’s a sprawling ranch out that way. The folks who work on it keep an eye on vehicles like they do their cattle and for good reason. Like us, they live and work in an illegal traffic corridor.
Recently Ron and I packed up the dogs and some chocolate chip cookies I’d just baked and headed south. Using Ron’s binoculars, we followed a group of eleven deer ascending a rocky hillside. Sure footed as mountain goats, they disappeared over a ridge before I could take pictures. We stopped at a water tank where a friend said we’d find ducks. To our disappointment, they’d taken the day off. Ron pointed out a few old homes where ranch hands and their families live. The dogs barked at cows. A typical Sunday drive, until shadows settled on the landscape reminding us the sun was setting.
Out on the dirt road, we came to an arroyo with standing water and agreed it was time to go home. If we got stuck in the mud, it was a long and potentially dangerous walk back to the ranch. With no radio reception out there, the ride was quiet. I thought about the fence and the decisions being made that might very well impact our lives. I felt eyes on us. From the hills, shrouded in darkness, to the oval office, I wondered who would win this ongoing battle. The drug runners who hid from our headlights, or the federal contractors with orders from Washington to build the fence?
Last week we learned Border Patrol Agents had been picking up groups of mules (men and women packing drugs) just east of our place nearly every night while we slept. Even so, I’m torn on the subject. A fence will no more solve illegal immigration issues than the National School Lunch Program cures poverty for children. Of course I would like to see the bad guys stopped from coming across the border, but I can’t imagine sending a mother back to Mexico after she risked her life to be with her children.
At home I fed the dogs. It was clear and cold without a cloud in the sky. Too cold for anyone to spend the night out in the desert. The great horned owls that live up in our pine trees hooted from their respective perches giving voice to ominous thoughts of who might be out there just beyond the porch light. I flipped up the collar of my jacket and walked back to the house. Once inside, I locked the door behind me.
Last weekend while pruning, I contemplated a peach tree that had bloomed due to unseasonably warm temperatures. With over thirty fruit trees, why did just this one decide to flower? Surely the tree’s DNA must know this is risky business. It’s mid-February. The chance of snow and freezing temperatures is about ninety-five percent. Down here we don’t plant a thing until we see buds on the mesquites. That’s at least six weeks away. You would think a species that has been around for 8,000 years would know doing such a thing is dangerous.
The beauty and joy this one tree brought to our otherwise naked orchard on a cloudy day reminded me of Ron’s mom, Natalie, who loved being outside working with us. She would have picked up every branch she came across and scolded us for ignoring the tiny twigs at our feet. Natalie is in a nursing home now up in Phoenix; close to Ron’s brother. For many years she lived just up the road with her second husband, W.H. who also now lives in a nursing home. Natalie has Alzheimer’s and access to proper healthcare is a serious problem down here. The closest in-home nursing services are two hours away. Deciding whether to quit work to take care of family members or to place them in a nursing home is a common hardship most of us have had to face.
When Natalie was still at home, our schedule included plenty of breaks so she wouldn’t become bored and wander off. The last vivid memory I have of her helping in the orchard was after harvesting pecans. I set her up with three buckets. One with the pecans we had just picked, one for the husks, and one for the shelled nuts. We worked side by side, and when she got the hang of it, I went about my chores. About a half-hour later I checked on her progress. The buckets contained a hodgepodge of pecans and husks. When I asked her how she was doing, she raised a pecan and said, “I can’t remember where these go.” Instead of dwelling on it, I stacked the buckets on the back porch, and we went for a walk.
The disease was whittling away at her, and she’d become obsessed with picking things up off the ground. Bottle tops, pieces of wire, shards of worn glass, baling twine; anything that didn’t look like it belonged in the dirt. That day she picked up a rusted tin can and handed it to me. Looking confused she said, “I don’t know why I do this. I can’t stop.”
Searching the ground for tools we’d used throughout the day, I nearly ran into the low hanging branches of the peach tree. The wind was blowing hard and several of the blossoms were strewn throughout the orchard. I picked one up. Maybe, like Natalie, the tree didn’t know why it did what it did. I knew if she had been there with me, she would have insisted we work together to collect every blossom. In the house we would have set them in a bowl to admire.
Last summer my mom and I took a road trip to Houston to attend my niece’s high school graduation. With all the activity in the house, a few scuffles broke out between the family’s American Staffordshire Terrier puppy, Eli, and their nine-year-old Poodle mix, Kipper. By the end of the weekend, we agreed it would be best for the dogs if my mom and I took Kipper back with us.
Kipper was a runner, but in the suburbs of Houston, he was confined to the backyard. On his first morning at the ranch, I hesitated to let him off the leash. At thirty pounds, he was no match for coyotes, bobcats, javelina, or rattlesnakes. But this was a dog who needed to run free. With his remarkable human-like eyes he pleaded with me to let him go. Before I did, I kissed his muzzle. He’s in God’s hands, I thought.
That first morning he was gone over an hour. I heard yips and yaps coming from the desert and feared the worst, but he eventually came home. After having his treat, he sprawled out on the living room floor, where his legs twitched as he chased critters in his dreams. He’d been a naughty boy in Houston— peeing in the house, running away, sneaking into rooms where he didn’t belong. After that first run, his behavioral problems disappeared.
Each morning Ron and I walked the airstrip with Kipper and our other four dogs. Kipper would vanish into the creosote and tall grass then pop out only to dash off into the brush on the other side of the runway. Most days, after the rest of us returned home from our walk, Kipper would continue on his adventures. I worried about him being out there hunting and chasing on his own. If he was gone too long, I’d get in my truck to go look for him. Sometimes he’d show up carrying a rabbit or a sun-bleached bone from a deer or cow in his mouth.
Kipper’s eyes danced with newfound freedom. Ron and I dubbed him The Happiest Dog in the World. He did not adhere to the rules of dog obedience, instead he had his own way of doing things and seemed grateful we were willing to go along with his antics, which earned him his nick-name, Ding-a-Ling.
In the past I’ve fostered dogs for rescue organizations, volunteered at vaccination clinics, worked as a behavioral trainer, and sat on the board for the Santa Cruz Humane Society. In short, I thought I knew dogs, but Kipper changed all that. I learned Poodles are not little French fufu dogs made for our laps. Instead, they are skilled hunters and water dogs adapted with webbed feet. The rabbits he brought home were no accident. They were trophies he presented to me. Next to Border Collies, the Poodle is ranked the second most intelligent breed. Kipper wasn’t naughty, he just didn’t have the words to express his disappointment at being confined as a house pet.
With tractors, trailers, trucks, and livestock, a ranch can be a precarious place and accidents happen. Kipper was hit by a truck nearly a month ago, and we are still grieving. Our other dogs are wonderful, well-behaved animals. They wouldn’t think of running off or stealing a sandwich from the counter when I wasn’t looking. I miss the infectious energy Kipper brought to this otherwise quiet place.
We buried Kipper at the end of the runway surrounded by creosote and scrub brush. On our morning walks I still find myself waiting for The Happiest Dog in the World to cross my path before disappearing into the desert.
February 12, 2017
When I’m traveling, people often ask, “Are you afraid of living so close to the border?” The short answer is no. We live at the end of a bumpy dirt road eighty miles from a grocery store. Anyone driving up here is either an invited guest or a confused hunter who lost the signal on his phone while following Google Maps. I’m not afraid of stepping outside after dark, being alone when my husband is out of town, or living a mile from my closest neighbor, but I’m aware of the bigger question.
Over the years, Ron and I have had several encounters with people coming up from Mexico who have crossed the border illegally. Some come from such poverty they are willing to risk their lives for an opportunity to work, others haven’t seen their families in years, and still others- the ones we all worry about– are moving drugs. We’ve been lucky in that the folks who have passed through the ranch have only asked for food, water, and/or medical care. Most of us living along the border have dealt with illegal traffic on our property and the reality is, sometimes these confrontations end in tragedy.
There is an instant, whether it’s when a group of Mexican Nationals approach our house or when any of us meet a stranger at our door, that the primal fight or flight instinct is ignited sending the hairs on the back of our necks standing on end. So yes, every time a stranger shows up at the ranch there is a moment I’m afraid of living so close to the border. But I’ve also been on the other side of this—traveling through a foreign country, hungry, out of water, while cautiously approaching someone’s front door. It’s scary for everyone involved.
Last week, when a car pulled in at dusk and parked behind the horse pasture, Ron and I went into action following an unspoken plan we’ve honed over time. Ron grabbed his binoculars and pistol and headed outside to assess the situation while I located Border Patrol’s number on my phone, pulled curtains, and turned off most of the lights in the house. From the living room window, I kept an eye on my husband, who stood still as a bird dog on the tailgate of my pick up with his binoculars fixed on the intruder.
When Ron came in, he called Border Patrol. From what he could tell, it was some guy just hanging out. As we waited, I tried to fix dinner but gave up and made a margarita instead. Out our bedroom window, the unfamiliar car disappeared in the setting sun. The unknown left Ron and I on edge with both of us anticipating a knock at the door. Struggling to remain calm, I took stock in the benign reasons someone would be parked out on our property. But pacing the living room waiting for something to happen, my thoughts wandered down dark paths.
When Border Patrol finally showed up, the agent approached the stranger in his vehicle; the blue and red lights cutting through the black. Fifteen minutes later the agent was at our door saying it was a kid from New York (which explained the Prius) who thought he was on federal land. If it was alright with us, the young man had planned to camp for the night. Of all the scenarios that had played out like scenes from a movie in my head, the news was so unexpected, I laughed.
The next morning, in the light of day, I had time to reflect. We should have offered the kid from New York a warm bed. This time of year the night temperatures can dip down into the twenties. He probably would have appreciated a hot shower and home-cooked meal. Instead, he left in the morning and took with him his own story of what happened the night he was scared out of his wits when a Border Patrol vehicle with its emergency lights ablaze, approached him while he set up camp somewhere near the border in New Mexico.
February 3, 2017