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On the front lines of the immigration battle

A Border Patrol agent checks a camper earlier in the morning at a roadblock north of Columbus, New Mexico.
A Border Patrol agent checks a camper earlier in the morning at a roadblock north of Columbus, New Mexico. Kevin G. Hall / MCT

OUTSIDE COLUMBUS, N.M. — James Johnson’s family has farmed and ranched along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1918. He speaks fluent Spanish and says he's sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants and to growers in the interior of the United States that hire them.

“But for those of us who have to sit on the front line and deal with these illegals coming across every night, and the destruction they leave behind, it’s a different story,” Johnson said.

Illegal aliens and drug traffickers trample on his onions and watermelons. His cattle are dying of thirst, afraid to go to watering holes that have become makeshift campsites for immigrants making the 35-mile walk north through the desert to Interstate 10.

Turning to his computer, Johnson calls up Google Earth, zooming in on a satellite image from last year that shows dozens of footpaths, which from space look like ant trails. Years of illegal aliens crossing his property made the footpaths.

In Columbus, nearly everyone approached by McClatchy Newspapers said the fencing and stepped-up enforcement are working. Anglos were mostly in favor of the fencing. Hispanic residents acknowledged its effectiveness but some called the fencing divisive.

“I have family there in Mexico,” said Ezequiel Osono, playing dominos with other elderly Hispanic men who said they were indifferent to the wall.

At the town’s museum, historical interpreter W. Lee Robinson Jr. told the story of Pancho Villa’s 1916 attack on Columbus. After the tour, he confided that he’s a Minuteman, part of a self-proclaimed border-protection group that Mexico considers a vigilante hate group.

“Being a Minuteman in New Mexico is getting pretty fricking boring,” said Robinson, a Pennsylvania transplant. “There are not illegals here to be found.”

Across the border in Palomas, the story’s the same. Merchants said the town of 10,000 has seen its population shrink by half. Small businesses set up to sell food and drink to U.S.-bound Mexicans have disappeared.

At the Ignacio Zaragoza elementary school, the new U.S. border fence marks the end of a soccer field. Administrator Armando Villasana, 50, welcomes the fact that fewer people are trampling across school property at night. He has no problem with the fence, saying it bothers Mexicans farther south than those at the border.

“On the border, we're accustomed to changes,” said Villasana.

About a dozen miles west of Palomas is Las Chepas, a crumbling town that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson asked his counterpart in the Mexican state of Chihuahua to bulldoze. The town wasn’t razed, but today it’s virtually a ghost town. A yellow school bus still makes the trip there from Palomas, its windows still blackened on the right side to keep Border Patrol agents from guessing how many aliens will be crossing at night.

Now, there are few passengers traveling the bumpy dirt road.

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