Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
ANIMAS – Residents in this remote ranching town in southern New Mexico complain they’ve been forgotten and left out as Washington and Santa Fe debate border issues.
“It’s just kind of a slap in our face, because our government doesn’t want to do anything, doesn’t want to protect their citizens here on the border,” rancher and business owner Tricia Elbrock told the Journal in an interview.
She and other ranchers in New Mexico’s Bootheel say they need a border wall and more security as the region, long a drug smuggling corridor, has also become a hot spot for guides leading large groups of Central American migrants to Antelope Wells.
“We need more boots on the ground, more resources. Build the wall and quit fighting in Washington, D.C.,” Elbrock said.
In the last two weeks alone, Border Patrol agents have taken three large groups of migrants into custody at Antelope Wells. The largest group, 306 people, crossed Thursday just after midnight.
The vast majority are Central American parents with children, and minors traveling on their own, according to Border Patrol. The latest was the 26th group of more than 100 people to come across the border in the remote area since October. Most are seeking asylum.
“The Border Patrol, if we didn’t have them in our area, I don’t know where we’d be. This would just be open country for (the) cartel. And all these illegal immigrants coming through, just a free-for-all,” Elbrock said.
Residents in the Bootheel have been coping with drug smugglers who cut through remote ranchland for years.
One of Elbrock’s employees was kidnapped in 2015 while working on a wastewater system on a ranch near the border. Drug smugglers wanted his truck, after their vehicle got stuck, and they abducted him. He was released across the state line in Arizona.
Dawnella Jones, between taking orders at PW’s restaurant in Animas, said her family has a ranch about 30 miles from the border.
“I think the wall’s a good thing. There’s been times when there’s been dope on the ranch in bundles,” she said.
“A guy tried to steal a four-wheeler five days ago,” Jones’ son and business owner Wade McClain chimed in. “People who don’t believe we got a problem, need to come down here, maybe buy a house down there and maybe they live down there with maybe just a regular driveway, no big wall around their property,”
McClain, too, wants a barrier along strategic stretches of border to “filter” smugglers and illegal border crossers to areas where Border Patrol agents can apprehend them.
He is also concerned that Border Patrol agents are stretched thin by the large groups of migrants arriving at the New Mexico border.
“They’re processing so many people in Lordsburg right now that they’ve got every single agent doing paperwork,” McClain said.
The Border Patrol says drug traffickers are now taking advantage of the recent surge in migration by making smuggling runs at the same time large groups of Central Americans cross the border and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents.
Last week, agents seized 265 pounds of marijuana from suspected “drug mules” just west of Antelope Wells the same night a group of Central Americans was taken into custody.
“We’ve had the drug smugglers, we’ve had them coming in for years. But it just seems a lot more pronounced now, and then of course now you have an actual distraction to allow more drugs into this country,” Hidalgo County Manager Tisha Green said.
Green, along with Hidalgo County’s three county commissioners, sent a letter to Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich as well as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office in late December. “We are begging for your assistance to get this situation under control before it gets any worse,” they said in the letter.
New Mexico’s new Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, also a Democrat, met with county officials during a recent visit to Lordsburg, Green said.
Torres Small told the Journal that the remote Antelope Wells region needs more resources for border security.
“We have to make sure we’re investing in, for example, the manpower in our most remote areas of the desert and along the border. And that’s where manpower and technology makes more sense than a barrier.”
She is not in favor of building a border wall.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office has four deputies to cover 3,446 square miles, and it is looking for the money to hire two additional deputies.
“We have no choice at this time. This should have been done a long time ago, to be honest with you. These are ongoing concerns,” Green said.
Many residents in the remote area of the county near the border rely on Border Patrol agents and one another for their personal security. They worry that, these days, agents are too busy with the large groups of Central American families in custody to patrol the area.
“One Border Patrol told us after that big group, ‘They’re bringing us all in to do process paperwork.’ They’re not out in the field,” Elbrock said “We need more Border Patrol on the border, not here on (N.M. Highway) 9. Nine is not the border.”
Agents do still go out on patrol, according to the El Paso Border Patrol Sector, which includes all of New Mexico.
Yet, the increase in activity near Antelope Wells these days has many ranchers on edge.
“We get home last night after watching the football game at somebody’s house, and I’ve got to double-check my barn because you never know. One of the neighbors around here had some people in her barn,” rancher Dave Jones told the Journal.
At the Valley Mercantile in Animas, where he and his wife stopped to buy supplies before heading back to their cattle ranch a few miles south of town, they told the Journal they would like to see a border wall replace the barbed wire fencing and “Normandy” style vehicle barriers at Antelope Wells.
“They can tunnel under it … they can do a lot of stuff, but then they’re going to have to do that. They just can’t walk across,” Jones said, adding that more Border Patrol agents need to be assigned to the area. “You can build a wall, but you got to have someone there to patrol it.”