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Migrants flock to Arizona border

TOMBSTONE, Ariz.—The fiery embers of the Wild West smolder on Toughnut Street here, where a former schoolteacher runs an armed movement to close America's borders to illegal migrants and potential terrorists.

A few miles away, in the town of Palominas on the U.S. side of the border, residents complain that every day they find soiled diapers, plastic water bottles, torn fences and wounded livestock—and sometimes rotting bodies.

And in Altar, Mexico, 60 miles south of the border, businesses thrive on providing everything migrants might need to survive the long and perilous trip north, from backpacks and water bottles to cell phones for summoning U.S. police if they get lost in the desert.

Welcome to Arizona's 389-mile border with Mexico, the most common and deadly passage for undocumented migrants trying to reach the United States. Of the 1.1 million illegal migrants arrested last year, 52 percent were in Arizona, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Ten years ago, most illegal border crossings occurred in more populated areas along the California and Texas borders.

As a result, the hot, dusty regions of southern Arizona have taken on a lawless feel perhaps unequaled since more than a century ago, when lawman Wyatt Earp and his three gunslinger brothers shot it out with the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral.

Cars are festooned with bumper stickers reading: "What part of illegal immigration don't you understand?" or "Corporate America supports immigration to depress wages and increase profits." Newspapers carry near-daily reports about migrants dying from dehydration or fatigue, of people being held hostage in smugglers' safe houses and of drug-smuggling crimes.

And with summer under way, and temperatures often nearing 120 degrees, the Border Patrol has geared up to try to head off the deaths of migrants stranded in the desert. The U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has added 1,000 agents to the 2,000-person force assigned here a year ago and have doubled the number of aircraft patrolling the area, to 52 helicopters and planes.

Already, more than 450 migrants in distress have been rescued this year, though at least 21 reportedly have died trying to make the crossing in the first two weeks of July.

Still, the government is not doing enough for Chris Simcox, a former elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who in 2002 picked Tombstone as the headquarters for his controversial Minuteman Civilian Defense Corps, a crew of mostly white-collar volunteers who have taken up the task of catching undocumented foreigners.

Simcox's small office is stacked with bulletproof vests, weapons, walkie-talkies and other military-style paraphernalia. He claims that many of the estimated 10 million undocumented workers in the United States are criminals and drug traffickers, that immigrants take jobs from Americans, drive wages down, don't pay taxes, belong to gangs and are exploited by employers, creating a U.S. culture of "indentured servants."

In Simcox's view, a corrupt Mexican government forces its citizens to seek jobs elsewhere and the Bush administration doesn't want to stop the flow because big business benefits from cheap, illegal labor.

"It's a public safety issue because 30 percent of crimes are committed by aliens," said Simcox, who cites no source for the statistic. "There's an explosion of vicious gangs with no respect for human life that target us because of soft laws."

Bush administration officials, including the president, have denounced Simcox's group as little more than vigilantes and say its presence on the border makes it likely that violence will occur.

Simcox scoffs at the idea and points for support to the group's mobilization in April, when it launched a month-long vigil along a 20-mile stretch of border. Some 1,000 volunteers, mostly from out of state, showed up, sporting weapons, camouflage clothing, binoculars and night-vision goggles. They sat on lawn chairs in 24 posts and waited.

Simcox says they caught 700 people from 26 countries, including Iraqis, Iranians, Chinese, Bosnians, Pakistanis and Russians—a number the Border Patrol won't verify. There was no violence.

"Vigilantes take the law into their own hands. We don't," Simcox said. "I'm a hardcore Republican, but I'm an environmentalist. I defend human rights and I want abortion legalized. ... They can't put us in a box."

Now the group is looking forward to an October mobilization, when it plans to deploy volunteers along the Canadian border.

"Our government is more concerned about securing Iraq than our own borders," Simcox said. "We're doing what the Department of Homeland Security should be doing—recruiting civil defense groups to guard borders and patrol coastlines, like they did in World War II. We're a Renaissance movement."

Simcox isn't the only one in Arizona who thinks he can do a better job than the Border Patrol.

Last year, Glenn Spencers, a California computer consultant, bought 18 acres near Palominas, a town of 2,000 in southeastern Arizona where rusty barbed wire and cottonwood trees are the only objects marking the border.

Spencers' land is literally just a few steps from Mexico and contains a house and two runways from which twice daily he launches unmanned aircraft called Border Hawks with cameras to watch migrants and smugglers sneaking across the border. He posts the images on the Internet.

He also conducts unarmed night missions with volunteers who scope desert fields with infrared goggles to catch migrants, holding them until the U.S. Border Patrol arrives to arrest them.

"We're going to shame the U.S. government by demonstrating what can be done to secure our borders. They haven't seen anything yet," said Spencers, 65, who spent 35 years as a Navy project manager who helped develop the guided missile destroyer.

Palominas, which sits along the San Pedro mountains and east of Coronado National Park, means Place of White Doves in Spanish. Its remoteness and unguarded border is drawing more illegal migrants seeking U.S. jobs, residents say.

"They've been coming here for years," said John Waters, owner of the Trading Post, a diner, antiques store and gas station that resembles a ramshackle shed and serves as the town's nerve center.

"But now we're getting criminals. They come from Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia, and there's Orientals, Iranians and Iraqis. We're a funnel. How can we tell who's a terrorist?"

The Department of Homeland Security won't give out information on so-called "OTMs"—Other Than Mexicans—detained along the border since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Waters isn't the only one concerned. Marsha Thomas said she used to ride her horses along the San Pedro River, but it's not pretty now. There are plastic bags, empty water bottles, ripped fences, open gates, running water faucets and missing, wounded or dead cattle and horses.

And she's afraid. "We were astounded when we recently found a Quran. Some roads are littered with postcards in Arabic and letters in Muslim. The Border Patrol recently caught 16 Iranians," she said.

There's no way to confirm what may be unfounded rumor.

But the stories have residents on edge. Many say they can't sleep because of barking dogs—a sign of strangers. In the morning, they watch for vultures and ravens, indicators of dead bodies. And they inspect land for cut fences, plastic bags, empty water bottles, soiled diapers and fecal matter.

"I've never lived in a friendlier place, but there's a certain siege mentality here," said Andy Couchaud, a horse breeding rancher and former military air traffic controller who says he has had several armed encounters with drug and people smugglers at his 40-acre ranch.

Couchaud still mourns the death last year of his Arabian horse Scarlett. She was spooked, he says, when migrants found shelter in the corral and she broke her neck trying to break free.

"I try to not be racist," he said. "But if you leave your country illegally, you lose all rights, except the right to die."

Mexican Red Cross paramedic Justo Guerrero, who staffs the organization's only aid station for migrants near the border, has seen many who have faced, if not death, then at least deadly conditions.

"They come with blisters on their feet and bodies. Sometimes their shoes and clothes are tatters. They have cuts all over and are dehydrated," he says. About 70 to 80 people seek treatment daily at the giant trailer he operates in the town of Altar, 60 miles south of the border in the Mexican state of Sonora.

"Some have been robbed of all their belongings. Many women have been raped but are too embarrassed to say. We do what we can; give them clothes, treat their wounds, hydrate them with IVs," he said.

Altar is the last safe stop for the thousands of migrants who arrive daily before the final push toward the border and into Arizona, with its blazing deserts, spirit-killing mountains and human predators.

A former mining town of 1,500, Altar relies on the migrants. Its main square is ringed with vendors selling water bottles, baseball caps, tennis shoes and jackets needed at night, when temperatures dip.

Cell phones are also for sale. In May, a call to 911 saved 23 migrants lost in the Arizona desert. By nightfall, the Border Patrol rescued them. Agents warn, though, that the region is so big, they can't always locate stranded people.

Altar also teems with coyotes, or human smugglers, who circle the plaza in cars with tinted windows, looking for clients. They charge $1,500—often a life's savings—for a supposedly safe drive north. Money can be seen exchanging hands in side streets.

There's a cheaper way, too.

Dozens of vans parked along the plaza carry hundreds of people to the border, charging $10 a person and cramming as many as 25 people in vehicles meant for eight. Once at the border, the migrants are on their own to find a way across.

On a recent Friday afternoon, as the sun began to set, the vans began to head out of Altar, kicking up dust as they zoomed along the bumpy dirt road. In one hour, a visitor counted more than 40 heading north.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-BORDER

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050715 MEXICO BORDER

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