- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

PALOMINAS, Ariz.

Bud Strom knows well how outsiders have pegged ranchers like him, those whose land serves as the nation’s front porch to illegal immigration.

When reporters flock in from their big-city offices, they want to know:

Is he packing heat? Can they get the pistol on camera? (Even if it’s loaded with snake shot meant for vermin.) Then, when he answers “no” to the second question, they ask: Isn’t he ticked off about all the “illegals” traipsing through his brush?

The answer to that one: Well, yes and no.

Along the same stretch of border where Mr. Strom raises cattle, father and son ranchers Jack and John Ladd have played host to politicians promising a get-tough approach to immigration. The Ladds show them piles of clothes and water jugs left on their land, the gaping holes slashed in their fences. But talk of a wall, or any so-called “enforcement-only” solution, is flat-out absurd, the ranchers say.

Then there’s Paul Palmer. Feedlot operator. Dyed-in-the-wool Republican. A good Baptist. “Papa” to the grandson on whom he keeps watch while sorting cattle. And, oh yeah, he supposes “criminal” is fitting, too.

For years, Mr. Palmer employed illegal farmhands until their fear of working in a region swarming with Border Patrol agents drove them elsewhere. Now he will preach to anyone who will listen about the nation’s need to legalize its illegal work force.

“I’m conservative right down to the bone,” he said, “but I think that sometimes we have to do the right thing.”

These fellows don’t just talk about illegal immigration, they live it by making their homes in the heart of the nation’s busiest illegal crossing corridor, the mesas of southern Arizona. They own the land that gets trampled, feed their wives, children and grandchildren from the money they eke out of it. And they’ll endure the repercussions of whatever Congress does or does not devise to rectify the problem.

They don’t care for outright amnesty; the recent migrant marches make their stomachs turn.

They also don’t want immigrants branded felons, rounded up and shipped out, and insist a sealed-off border isn’t the answer either.

But they do have a message:

In a debate often argued in extremes — even here, in the land of militias and Minutemen — there’s a middle ground to be found.

A few statistics about Cochise County, Ariz.

Residents: 117,755. Nonresidents caught crossing illegally since October: 52,885. Border Patrol agents who do the catching: 750.

Cowboy poets: At least one.

Mr. Strom is strolling from his horse corrals to his bunkhouse for some iced tea when suddenly he stops and starts into one of his favorite ditties in perfect baritone pitch. He calls it, “We’re Doing Business Just the Same,” a lament on the travails of a border rancher and certain events that occurred over a two-week period two years ago in June.

“Border Patrol came through,

“Broke my gate down, too,

“As they cut my water lines.

“Said they’d fix it soon,

“By tomorrow noon.

“These delays take too much time. …

“Illegals cut my fence,

“And it makes no sense,

“‘Cause there’s gates they could go through.

“‘Course my cows are hopin’

“That they find ‘em open

“To parade Route 92.”

Mr. Strom’s ranch, the Single Star, is sandwiched between Mexico and state Route 92, a good two-hour drive southeast of Tucson. He figures hundreds of immigrants a week make the three-mile trek from the border to the highway, through his straw-tinted grasses, past the Simmentals nursing their calves, under the tower that operates four Border Patrol cameras.

At 74, Mr. Strom still struts with the commanding presence of a career Army man — a retired brigadier general.

Mr. Strom takes a gulp of tea, then enumerates his inventory of immigration horror stories.

“I’ve run across 15 milk bottles … half full of milk.”

He stops, rises and disappears for a moment, returning with a tiny sandal, perhaps big enough for a 3-year-old. Its flowered embroidery is smudged with dirt. “I have this,” he said, setting down the lonely shoe. “And then wedding pictures. Birth certificates.”

His fences have been cut but also run over, usually by drug couriers fleeing U.S. authorities by heading back into Mexico.

He fears his cows will eat a plastic water bottle and tear up their insides; he has one lying in agony at this very moment, sick from he doesn’t know what. “She’s blind. She’s not eating.”

All of this, Mr. Strom accepts, is what he signed up for when he signed on as a rancher on the Arizona-Mexico border 16 years ago. Illegal immigration isn’t unlike his constant struggle with drought — sometimes eased but never ended.

Still, he wonders whether this problem could be solved, if only the politicians would “stop bickering.”

“I’m violently against amnesty, but I do think there’s got to be a process worked out because the growers and the pickers in our country have got to have help,” he said. “I would like very much to go down to Naco [Mexico] and get a team of workers who can legally come across … and have them rebuild some of my adobe walls.”

But walling off the border, as the U.S. House proposes in its immigration bill, reminds him of Berlin during his Army days.

“No,” says Mr. Strom, “I don’t want that. … It just doesn’t seem like a very American thing to do.”


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