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Arizona rancher: No one-size-fits-all solution to border enforcement

August 26, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher has lived for more than four decades on the southern U.S. border, where rugged, remote landscape is a major corridor for immigration and drug smugglers. Jeffrey Brown talks to Thrasher about variation in border security, threats posed by traffickers and prospects for enforcement.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to our occasional series of conversations with those directly affected by the ongoing border crisis.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, we heard from an attorney offering free legal services to immigrants at a New Mexico detention center.

Tonight, rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher joins us. He’s lived on the southern U.S. border for more than four decades. He has a ranch near Sierra Vista, Arizona, just eight miles from the Mexican border. And he treats cattle in ranches from Arizona to New Mexico to West Texas, where rugged, remote landscape is a major corridor for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

Well, welcome to you, Dr. Thrasher.

So how does illegal immigration at the border impact your life as a rancher and vet? Give us a glimpse of life at the border as you experience it.

DR. GARY THRASHER, Veterinarian/Rancher: Well, where I’m at, at the border, and where I spend most of my time is in the remote regions of the border, rather on the areas where there’s a lot of population.

So we’re in pretty remote areas that have a lot of traffic, that are not patrolled very regularly. And it does create a situation where we come in contact with quite a few people coming across the border for all kinds of different reasons.

Right now, it’s a lot of drugs, a lot of other-than-Mexican-type smuggling, mostly just smuggling activities, rather than just immigrant activities. In the past, it’s been huge amounts of immigrants. Now it’s drugs and more OTMs, they call it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you seen a lot of change in recent years either in volume or in types of activities?

DR. GARY THRASHER: Oh, yes, there’s change depending on what regions of the border.

I travel the whole border of New Mexico and Arizona primarily, and different regions have different types of traffic depending on the gangs that are running those particular routes through there. We are not seeing much in the line of unaccompanied minors coming across in our area, mostly because they have much easier access through the Texas corridor down around the Rio Grande.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, for you…

DR. GARY THRASHER: But if they ever stop that down there, it will be coming here. So we’re expecting to see it eventually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain that, so — because there is a lot of talk about border issues in Texas, but you’re worried that when it gets turned off there, it moves up to where you are?

DR. GARY THRASHER: Historically, that’s the way it’s always happened.

There was a lot of traffic through California. When they shut that corridor, they shut it, sent them into the Arizona corridor, thinking that it would be a lot more rugged and a lot more difficult for them. But it’s just a matter of where the gates are open the most.

And we have — running parallel to the Arizona border and New Mexico border, we have Mexican Route 2 that runs from Mexicali all the way to Juarez. And it’s really excellent access for anything coming to the border. In spots, it’s less than half-a-mile from the U.S.-Mexican border.

So the next — if they don’t go through the Rio Grande Valley, the next most successful place for them is along our border.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, sounds like you’re saying…

DR. GARY THRASHER: And if they plug…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead. I’m sorry.

DR. GARY THRASHER: If they plug our border, then the next place will probably be the Texas Big Bend area, but there’s not very good access to that on the Mexican side, so it’s the last one that will be pressured with anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so it sounds like what you’re saying, that, for you, the immigration and particularly the immigration of minors isn’t so much the issue, as security or border security is and drugs.

Define that problem and how serious is it, and what do you want to see happen?

DR. GARY THRASHER: Well, it becomes more and more serious.

The illegal immigrants are not as serious a problem as the drug trade and trade from other people being smuggled in from other countries. When they’re driven farther and farther out into the sticks to cross the border, it’s becoming much more difficult to them, and they don’t want to be caught out there, and they don’t want their trails to be interrupted.

So it becomes a little bit more violent. They stand up to us a lot more. As it is now, we don’t very often come in contact with very many people because we don’t want to be in contact with them. We just want to call it in and see if the Border Patrol can catch them after they have come across, rather than confronting them ourselves like we used to.

There’s just been too many people hurt and too much violence going on for us to get involved in that now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So I wonder, as you watch and listen to the debate around the country, what is it that you want the rest of the country to know or that perhaps is not being understood or seen clearly from where you sit?

DR. GARY THRASHER: Well, the border is not a uniform, consistent situation all the way across the border.

Some places, the fence works. Some places, it doesn’t. Some places, you don’t want a fence. Each particular area has its own characteristics and will have to be dealt with differently. You can’t compare the Rio Grande Valley to the Arizona mountains to the Arizona deserts. They’re all completely different. The Yuma desert is completely different.

It takes a whole lot different planning and a whole lot different methods and ways they’re trying to slow the immigration. What the — most of our problem in Arizona is the fact is that Border Patrol, historically, has not actually tried to enforce the international boundary in the rural areas.

They have waited for them to come across. Then they chase them, try to apprehend them after they have gone through our ranches and caused whatever problems they’re going to cause. At this point, we need them on the international boundary, rather than back.

And I don’t mean 100 percent of them. I mean 75 percent to 80 percent of the agents probably should be and the assets should be. As it is now, they’re trying to watch them, but when they watch them, they just watch them cross, and then they chase them to our places, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you, just in our last 30 or 40 seconds here, what — you watch the debate going on in Washington. Is there one thing that you would like to see from the federal government at this point?

DR. GARY THRASHER: A change in policy, a change in deployment strategies, dependent upon the particular area it’s in.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, where they control it all from Washington, D.C. The agents on the ground, their morale is terrible after all this problem with the unaccompanied minors. You know, illegal crossing of the border the first time, where you just cross the border and you haven’t done anything else, is only a misdemeanor.

How much risk and how much effort do you want to go to, to enforce a misdemeanor? There is no way to differentiate whether that’s — they’re carrying guns, whether they’re carrying somebody that’s a criminal or seeks to do harm in the U.S.

So it’s very difficult, and it’s very disheartening for the agents themselves. They are just frustrated in what they’re doing. So, how much confidence can you have in them, when they’re controlled out of D.C. the way they are?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gary Thrasher, thank you so much for joining us.

DR. GARY THRASHER: You bet. Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We will have more conversations on the border crisis soon.

Hear more voices from the immigration debate. PBS NewsHour has invited an immigration judge, a border patrol officer, an immigration lawyer, an Arizona rancher and more to give a personal account from their front-seat view of the clash over the recent influx of migrants from Central America. Watch these conversations in the playlist below: