Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
HACHITA – Standing between President Donald Trump and his promised border wall is New Mexico rancher William Hurt.
Like thousands of other private landowners and leaseholders who live, ranch and farm along the Mexican border, Hurt knows the border firsthand – the terrain, the people, the risks.
He and his family, fourth-generation ranchers, are among the largest landholders on the New Mexico border. They work in one of the most remote and rugged regions of the state, the southeastern corner of the Bootheel.
Private and state-owned lands make up 67 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile Mexican border, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. Hurt Cattle Co. ranches a mix of federal, state and privately leased or owned parcels, hundreds of thousands of acres from the border nearly to Interstate 10.
Last month, the Trump administration issued a request for proposals to construct a “physically imposing” barrier on the southern border. To build the wall, the federal government would either need to work with these border landowners and leaseholders or take the land by eminent domain.
Hurt has something to say about it.
“Don’t even come down here and think about starting building a wall until you get input from the landowner,” he said. “And work with us and don’t come in and start condemning. … The best way to just absolutely get no cooperation is tell me what I’m gonna have to do to make you happy.”
Hurt has had terrifying run-ins with illegal traffic on his property. He has also had neighborly relationships with farmers and ranchers on the other side of the border.
Like that of many other border ranchers whose views are rooted in real-life experience, Hurt’s perception of the border isn’t one-dimensional.
He is a registered Democrat. He voted for Trump. He is married to a woman from Mexico.
Wall ‘a little radical’
The metal roof of Hurt’s ranch house glints like a diamond in the sun, a spark of civilization miles off lonely N.M. 81 about an hour south of Hachita. The Big Hatchet and Alamo Hueco mountains bookend one side of an immense landscape, the Animas Mountains the other.
There’s about 80 miles of border in the Bootheel, where fewer than 5,000 people live, scattered across the more than 3,000 square miles that make up Hidalgo County. Hurt, 60, raises cattle along close to 30 miles of that border country, where Mexico lies to the south and east.
He wears a beat-up white cowboy hat and drives a Dodge Ram. He is prone to answer the question “How are you?” with “More rain, less government and I’d be fine.” He has a deep voice, a country drawl and a taste for sarcasm.
He also has strong opinions about what is – and isn’t – needed to secure the border.
A wall? Maybe where it’s feasible; but not on his property, where it’s not realistic, he says.
A stronger vehicle barrier would be helpful.
More Border Patrol? Yes, but patrolling the line, not the highway 50 miles north.
Immigration reform? He favors a work visa program that would let him legally hire migrant labor. He has only two full-time ranch hands: one a 69-year-old former Border Patrol agent and the other a 66-year-old Mexican immigrant whose legal status Hurt sponsored under the 1986 amnesty law.
“My perception of a wall is 30 feet high, 6 feet thick, guard posts every hundred yards with somebody sitting in it,” Hurt said. “A little radical. That is what I would perceive as a wall. That is what the general public perceives as a wall.”
Is that what he wants?
“No,” he said. “I think a wall could work in some places, but not here. I’ve seen how the government does things, and they really don’t know what they’re doing down here. We need a vehicle barrier – but regardless of what you put down there, the Border Patrol has to be on the border patrolling. Otherwise, you have no control of the border.”
No man’s land
Border Patrol agents frequently patrol closer to N.M. 9 or 81 because of the difficult terrain, the lack of cellphone service, inadequate manpower and a strategy that favors chasing illegal traffic from north to south, rather than south to north.
But New Mexico’s border ranchers take the borderline literally, because they are the ones caught in a no man’s land between the line and law enforcement.
Last July, Hurt was driving home in broad daylight when a pickup came barreling toward him.
Distances as the crow flies are meaningless in the Bootheel. The border may lie just 16 miles to the east from his ranch house, but it can take almost two hours to get there on the ranch road – which Hurt maintains – that twists over hills and desert pastureland.
In the border fence, there is a locked gate. Its purpose used to be to move cattle from one side to the other; years ago, Hurt says, there was a sign that said something like, “You are entering the United States. Report to the closest port of entry.”
But now, it’s an invitation for trucks loaded with migrants or dope.
Hurt’s road runs from the border west, past the house where he lives with his wife and their two young boys, and ends at N.M. 81. That July day, a truck loaded with people and bundles nearly ran him off his road.
Hurt speaks Spanish; words were exchanged. The encounter didn’t turn violent, and the truck turned back the way it came, heading south.
But it shook him up, he said.
Hurt has more stories like this. Such run-ins are rare, but he and his ranch hands find abandoned marijuana and see the tracks of “walkers” often enough.
‘Line in the sand’
Illegal traffic in the Bootheel is dominated by men carrying 60-pound sacks of marijuana north – professionals who will head back to Mexico for the next load.
“You need a line in the sand that nobody crosses,” Hurt said.
But not necessarily a wall, he says. A vehicle barrier to prevent the kind of truck that came in that day. A program by which the federal government could reimburse counties or landowners for their heavy use of private or local roads – which under current policy doesn’t happen. More agents closer to the line.
“One of the costs they don’t include in their estimate of a border fence” – conservative estimates range from $15 billion to $22 billion – “is the damage it does to the infrastructure getting the materials here,” Hurt said.
“Highway 81 was virtually nothing but potholes when they got done building the vehicle barrier they put down here, and that was six miles of vehicle barrier. Every time they run one of those semis loaded with water or loaded with steel, they are damaging that little old chip-seal road.”
What about the country’s relationship with Mexico?
That question is answered as he pulls up in a cloud of dust to the barbed-wire border fence that divides his land from his neighbor’s, the U.S. from Mexico, and shoots the breeze with Mexican Mennonites David and Maria Fehr. The wind was whipping.
Joking about Trump’s plans for a wall, Hurt repeats his yarn: “I tell them, build it 50 feet tall, 6 feet thick, with a guard every 100 yards.”
Maria, wearing a dress, sneakers and traditional head covering, deadpanned, “Well, at least we wouldn’t get the wind.”
Everyone chuckled, but then Hurt said seriously, “If Mexico could get control of its side and the U.S. could get control of our side, we could all live here with no problem.”