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Help wanted on the border

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

COLUMBUS, N.M. – To understand Americans’ many contradictions about immigration, consider farmer James Johnson. His land hugs the Southwest border – a region as misunderstood as Johnson himself.

“I don’t live in fear,” said Johnson as he looked toward Mexico. “I don’t fear the border.”

New Mexico farmer James Johnson stands near a monument marking the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, about 12 miles west of Columbus. Johnson wants the new wall going up along stretches of border in New Mexico to include his property. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Though he dismisses portrayals of the border as a dangerous place, the 44-year-old farmer wants a wall on his property. He figures that would help stop smugglers from bringing drugs and humans across the border and prevent others from stealing his crops.

He also complains he can’t find enough local workers for his farm in the Carzalia Valley just west of Columbus, especially during onion harvest season. He’d like to hire more immigrants.

A wooden fence and a second barbed wire fence are the current barriers on border farmland owned by James Johnson, about 12 miles west of Columbus. The Trump administration is extending the border barrier in New Mexico along stretches in Luna County. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“We need to protect our border,” Johnson said. But he also wants Washington to focus more on “legal immigration.”

As Congress and President Donald Trump fight over policies, Johnson says he and others on the border bear the brunt of their failure to act.

The third-generation New Mexico farmer embodies the complexity of the border for those who want both security and immigration reform.

His grandfather came to southern New Mexico in 1918, two years after Pancho Villa raided nearby Columbus. New Mexico was a young state, just six years old. J.R. Johnson Sr. saw promise in the Carzalia Valley and put down roots in what has become a prime agricultural region for onions, chile and watermelons in New Mexico.

But this borderland is caught in the middle as Congress and the president remain at an impasse over immigration reform and the border wall. The divisions are only expected to widen as the 2020 elections loom.

“From Washington it’s often hard for policy makers to see how complex immigration discussions in the region really are. People depend on immigration, yet sometimes feel conflicted about it, especially when there are a lot of illegal crossings,” said Andrew Seeley, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to research and analysis of immigration issues.

‘Take the land’

President Trump has made the border wall and a crackdown on immigration key issues again, this time for his re-election campaign.

“As the wall goes up, it becomes less and less of a problem,” Trump told a crowd at a rally in Rio Rancho earlier this month. “As the wall gets up, people aren’t getting through. I mean, you have to be a world class pole vaulter or a world class Mount Everest type climber. There aren’t too many around like that. It’s really doing the trick,” he said.

At the end of his third year in office, there is finally some action on the president’s promise to build a new border wall. Mexico won’t pay for it, but the Trump administration has some funding. Following a bitter fight with Congress, the president won a legal battle that cleared the way for him to divert military funding to build the wall after declaring a national emergency.

The Department of Defense funding includes construction of 70 miles of wall with 46 miles of the barrier in New Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Farmer James Johnson and his son TJ at the border fence on their family farm. Johnson has had trouble finding a steady workforce during the onion harvest season, but he still wants a border wall on his property. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Department of the Interior last week announced the transfer of 560 acres of federal lands to the Army that includes 170 acres in Luna and Hidalgo counties “for replacement of existing vehicle barrier” and 43 acres in Hidalgo County for “construction of new primary and secondary” barriers.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation opposes diverting funding from military projects to pay for the wall and seizing private land to build the structure.

“I know we need a strong border and part of being strong is being smart and putting those resources to work in the best possible way,” said Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., who represents the southern New Mexico border region.

She wants to fund hiring more Border Patrol agents in rural areas and technology to prevent smuggling through ports of entry where most of the heroin and methamphetamine enters.

“Not only is the Trump administration stealing funds from critical military projects to pay for the wall, they’re also pushing to take away people’s private land often with little to no compensation – with the president reportedly ordering officials to ‘take the land’ and ‘don’t worry’ about the law because ‘I’ll pardon you,’ ” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

“Close to 70% of land along the Southwest border belongs to entities other than the federal government,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM. “Any efforts by the Trump administration to use eminent domain must take into account the rights of landowners and provide just compensation for any seizure of private property.”

New Mexico’s senators made the statements in a joint announcement that the Government Accountability Office will investigate the use of eminent domain to build the wall.

Labor shortage

Johnson, meanwhile, is eager to see wall construction begin on his land as soon as possible. He has granted the federal government an easement and doesn’t want a penny for building on his property. “We want this border secured because we live here,” he said while driving along the border fence with his teenage son TJ.

In addition to stopping smugglers from cutting through his farm, “We’re constantly fighting Mexican cows,” Johnson said.

But when herding cattle back home means stepping foot in Mexico, Johnson has had to deal with warnings from Border Patrol agents not to cross back and forth because it is considered an illegal entry. “If this was my neighbor on the west side, if this was my neighbor on the north side or this was my neighbor on the east side, nobody would have a problem with me being neighborly and pushing the cows to his pasture and fixing his fence,” Johnson said he told one agent.

He has also had to contend with Customs and Border Protection officers questioning some of his employees at the Columbus Port of Entry when they crossed the border from Palomas on their way to work.

“We had a problem last year with CBP officers that were stopping our workers with resident alien cards,” Johnson said.

Legal residents with “green cards” are required to continuously live on the U.S. side of the border if they want to apply for citizenship. But those who are not seeking citizenship can have border commuter status that allows them to live in Mexico or Canada. U.S. citizens can live on either side of the border.

Many border residents choose to stay with family in Mexico because they have a spouse or other relative who doesn’t have documents to enter the U.S. or was deported.

The cost of living is also cheaper south of the border. Johnson said the company cleaning lady is one of those with a binational life because her husband and children live in Mexico.

“She’s become the breadwinner because she crosses the border every day. He works construction on the Mexican side. She makes more an hour than he makes a day,” he said.

Finding enough employees in the U.S. for a stable workforce is a growing problem for farmers and ranchers across the U.S.

“We struggled all year. It was like a revolving door,” Johnson said. He said turnover was high even though he gave all his employees a 75-cent-an-hour raise over last year.

The base pay on his farm is $8.75 an hour. And in the packing and shipping area during onion season, overtime is common. Some labor contractors paid more than $9 an hour, but Johnson said they told him “instead of luring more people to their crews, what ended up happening was the people came, but only for three or four days of the week.”

A tractor works in a field near a road along the U.S. border on James Johnson’s Carzalia Valley farm. Johnson is eager for the federal government to build a border wall on his property west of Columbus. The Trump administration has begun construction to upgrade sections of barrier and build some new wall in New Mexico using Defense Department funds. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

He said labor contractors told him local families don’t want to do seasonal work that could cost them benefits like food assistance if they earn more than is allowed to qualify.

When the number of asylum seekers arriving in New Mexico surged in the spring, Johnson half-jokingly asked if they could work on his farm while they wait for their cases to be decided by immigration court. During the summer this year he relied heavily on high school students to get through the onion harvest.

Simpler times gone

Next year, Johnson may apply under the agricultural visa program to bring in migrant workers from other countries on a temporary basis for seasonal work. Johnson would have to provide housing facilities for the temporary foreign workers approved by the Department of Labor.

He is concerned it might be tough to qualify because companies have to show they can’t find enough workers in the U.S. to do the job and Luna County consistently has a double-digit unemployment rate. The rate dipped to 9% in July but it is still the highest unemployment rate in the state, according to the most recent New Mexico Labor Market Review, a monthly report from the Department of Workforce Solutions.

A total of 27 companies in New Mexico qualified for agricultural visas this past year to bring in immigrant workers. There were a few dairies and some farms, but nearly half of the employers were trucking companies.

Though he welcomes a wall, driving along the international boundary on his farm looking toward Mexico, Johnson, like many border residents, speaks wistfully of simpler times when crossing back and forth was as natural as the ebb and flow of the Rio Grande.

“It’s not a perfect world, and these laws were made by somebody who sits in an ivory tower in a glass office and looks down on everybody else thinking that they know the reality of the area, and it’s not that way,” he said.