BISBEE, Ariz. – For the last 20 years, they have descended on the sun-bleached desert lands in southeastern Arizona near the Mexican border.
Longtime locals say they damage irrigation lines, tread on land without permission, alienate merchants and contribute to a sense of unease that didn’t use to exist.
But lately these complaints are aimed not so much at people arriving illegally from Mexico as they are at the federal forces sent to stop them.
Residents say the deployment of hundreds of agents – armed, uniformed and omnipresent – and millions of dollars in new infrastructure have created a military-like occupation in their once-sleepy hamlets.
They point to sprawling new facilities that dominate the scrubby landscape, such as the upgraded U.S. Border Patrol station in Naco and a fortified border fence that lights up like an airport runway lost among the yuccas. Some grumble that the federal agents are paid well above the county average while spurning the areas they patrol to live in a suburbanized town nearly 25 miles away.
Others here welcome the buildup, and even argue that it should be enhanced, especially in light of the slaying two years ago of border agent Brian Terry during a shootout with bandits. But many chafe at what they contend is an unacceptable cost to property, nature and their desert way of life.
“Honey, I’ve lived here all my life. This is all I know. I thought we were better off before the Border Patrol invaded us,” said Annette Walton, 53, as she served coffee and burgers to regulars at her diner, Our Place Cafe in South Bisbee. “We were not invaded by the illegals. We were invaded by Border Patrol.”
Innkeeper Jami Knudsvig is put off by the “ominous and eerie” way the border fence near her home is illuminated at night, its green-tinged lights pulsing in rhythm.
“They’re like Christmas lights. Just bigger,” she said. “Who are we keeping out? Are we keeping us in?”
Dan Oldfield, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years, calls the security presence excessive and “a constant nuisance.”
Oldfield said he has never felt unsafe, even when his home was burglarized in the 1990s by people he suspects were border crossers.
“Nothing was taken,” he said. “They went through the refrigerator, looking for something to eat.”
A tree-maintenance contractor, Oldfield said he doesn’t understand how the agents fill their days, noting that illegal border crossings in the area have plummeted in recent years.
Gary Widner, the Border Patrol deputy agent in charge of the Naco station, says the agents keep illegal crossings and related crime down.
“It’s because we’re here. That’s why they’ve slowed down,” Widner said. “If you have no presence in the area, they’ll exploit it.”
In the 1960s, Naco, Mexico, and Naco, Ariz., were essentially one small town.
Anna Marie Salomon, a teenager at the time, said she and others knew the 20 or so immigration officials on both sides of the old port of entry. Most lived in the community, with family on both sides of the border.
Crossing the boundary “was like going from your living room to your bedroom,” Salomon said.
Even in the late 1990s, only about 50 agents patrolled the region out of the Naco station, 12 miles south of Bisbee.
But between 2000 and 2003, the Naco station led the nation in human and drug smuggling arrests, Widner said, citing Department of Homeland Security statistics. The region saw more armed home invasions and other related crimes.
By 2005, an estimated 400 Border Patrol agents had been deployed in Cochise County to secure 30 miles of international boundary. The border fence was fortified, checkpoints sprang up and the National Guard arrived for support.
From California to Texas, the Border Patrol ranks doubled to 18,500, the agency said.
Crime and apprehensions fell sharply in the entire Tucson sector, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In Tucson, violent crime decreased by 27 percent, despite population growth in the last decade.
“The quality of life for these folks has gone up pretty significantly,” Widner said. “They’re not having to worry about the groups coming on their yard or being scared by armed invasions.”
While some agents grew up locally, the assignment is “an eye-opener” for those from urban areas, said Steven Passement, a Tucson-based U.S. Border Patrol community liaison.
The agents are trained in ranching etiquette, taught to respect open pastures that probably are a rancher’s private land, he said.
Still, property damage is inevitable when agents chase smugglers.
“It’s going to happen. Our guys are out there working,” Passement said.