Image: Bud Strom
Matt York  /  AP file
Bud Strom feeds yearlings at his ranch April 28 in Hereford, Ariz. Strom, who is opposed to amnesty for illegals, also opposes building a border wall between the United States and Mexico. He hopes that someday workers can cross from Mexico legally to work on ranches.
updated 5/6/2006 12:33:34 PM ET 2006-05-06T16:33:34

Bud Strom knows darn well how outsiders have pegged ranchers like him, those whose land serves as America’s front porch to illegal immigration.

When reporters flock in from their big-city offices, they want to know: Is he packing heat? Can they get the pistol on camera? (Even if it’s loaded with snake shot meant for vermin.) Then, when he answers “no” to the second question, they ask: Isn’t he ticked off about all the “illegals” traipsing through his brush?

The answer to that one: Well, yes and no.

Along the same stretch of border where Strom raises cattle, father and son ranchers Jack and John Ladd have played host to politicians promising a get-tough approach to immigration. The Ladds show them piles of clothes and water jugs left on their land, the gaping holes slashed in their fences. But talk of a wall, or any so-called “enforcement-only” solution, is flat-out absurd, the ranchers say.

‘Do the right thing’
Then there’s Paul Palmer. Feedlot operator. Dyed-in-the-wool Republican. A good Baptist. “Papa” to the grandson he keeps watch on while sorting cattle. And, oh yeah, he supposes “criminal” is fitting, too.

For years, Palmer employed illegal farmhands until their fear of working in a region swarming with Border Patrol agents drove them elsewhere. Now he’ll preach to anyone who will listen about America’s need to legalize its illegal work force.

“I’m conservative right down to the bone,” he says, “but I think that sometimes we have to do the right thing.”

These fellows don’t just talk about illegal immigration, they live it by making their homes in the heart of the nation’s busiest illegal crossing corridor, the mesas of southern Arizona. They own the land that gets trampled, feed their wives, kids and grandkids from the money they eke out of it. And they’ll endure the repercussions of whatever Congress does or does not devise to rectify the problem.

Finding middle ground
They don’t care for outright amnesty; the recent migrant marches make their stomachs turn.

They also don’t want immigrants branded felons, rounded up and shipped out, and insist a sealed-off border isn’t the answer either.

But they do have a message:

In a debate often argued in extremes—even here, in the land of militias and Minutemen—there’s a middle ground to be found.

A few statistics about Cochise County, Ariz.

  • Residents: 117,755.
  • Nonresidents caught crossing illegally since October: 52,885.
  • Border Patrol agents who do the catching: 750.
  • Cowboy poets: At least one.

Strom is strolling from his horse corrals to his bunkhouse for some iced tea when suddenly he stops and launches into one of his favorite ditties in perfect baritone pitch. He calls it, “We’re Doing Business Just the Same,” a lament on the travails of a border rancher and certain events that occurred over a two-week period two years ago in June.

“Border Patrol came through,

“broke my gate down, too,

“as they cut my water lines.

“Said they’d fix it soon,

“by tomorrow noon.

“These delays take too much time. ...

“Illegals cut my fence,

“and it makes no sense,

“’cause there’s gates they could go through.

“’Course my cows are hopin’

“that they find ‘em open

“to parade Route 92.”

Immigration horror stories
Strom’s ranch, the Single Star, is sandwiched between Mexico and state Route 92, a good two-hour drive southeast of Tucson. He figures hundreds of immigrants a week make the three-mile trek from the border to the highway, through his straw-tinted grasses, past the Simmentals nursing their calves, under the tower that operates four Border Patrol cameras.

At 74, Strom still struts with the commanding presence of a career Army man. (The ranch name alludes to his rank of brigadier general, retired.) He calls himself a moderate conservative—“I can’t stand (Sen. Ted) Kennedy, and some of the Republicans I can’t stand either.” A bumper sticker inside his bunkhouse reads, “To Hell With the Whales, Save the Cowboy.”

Strom takes a gulp of tea, then enumerates his inventory of immigration horror stories.

“I’ve run across 15 milk bottles ... half full of milk.”

He stops, rises and disappears for a moment, returning with a tiny sandal, perhaps big enough for a 3-year-old. Its flowered embroidery is smudged with dirt. “I have this,” he says, setting the lonely shoe down. “And then wedding pictures. Birth certificates.”

His fences have been cut but also run over, usually by drug couriers fleeing U.S. authorities by heading back into Mexico.

He fears his cows will eat a plastic water bottle and tear up their insides; he’s got one lying in agony at this very moment, sick from he doesn’t know what. “She’s blind. She’s not eating.”

‘Stop bickering’
All of this, Strom accepts, is what he signed up for when he signed on as a rancher on the Arizona-Mexico border 16 years ago. Illegal immigration isn’t unlike his constant struggle with drought — sometimes eased but never ended.

Still, he wonders if this problem could be solved, if only the politicians would “stop bickering.”

“I’m violently against amnesty, but I do think there’s got to be a process worked out because the growers and the pickers in our country have got to have help,” he says. “I would like very much to go down to Naco (Mexico) and get a team of workers who can legally come across ... and have them rebuild some of my adobe walls.”

But walling-off the border, as the U.S. House proposes in its immigration bill, reminds him of Berlin during his Army days.

“No,” says Strom, “I don’t want that. ... It just doesn’t seem like a very American thing to do.”

“My wife’s family initially settled this ranch in 1896.”

One local’s observations
Jack Ladd is rocking in a plush recliner next to the picture window that frames the San Jose Mountains a few miles south in Sonora, Mexico. He is 79, with hearing aids in both ears, a mild voice, gentle blue eyes. Each word is chosen carefully, because Ladd is nothing if not a thoughtful man. He spent years as director of labor relations for Phelps Dodge Mining Co. He knows a bit about compromise.

He holds a pile of papers—six 8-by-11 pages of single-spaced, neatly scribed reflections on illegal immigration and what might curb the problem and help bring some peace to his final years on the family cattle ranch.

He has titled this, “Jack Ladd Observations.” It describes the three groups of 15-20 migrants he saw crossing his ranch in broad daylight not long ago. “I dread the flood of illegals that would result if amnesty was actually granted ...” he writes. But he also bemoans as “just for show” politicians’ proposals for more walls, more lights, more agents. “They are not the answer,” he says.

Nor is any absolute ban on the employment and presence of illegal workers in the United States, he says. “I don’t believe this is realistic, possible or humane.”

So Ladd’s answer goes something like this:

  1. Establish a system to register and identify illegal workers.
  2. Provide such workers with counterfeit-proof IDs.
  3. If employers need additional workers, put in an order with the immigration service, which could allow the required number in.
  4. Expedite citizenship for those now waiting and allow illegal residents to apply, but consider them only after those already in line.

“That’s dreaming, I’m sure,” he concludes. “But that’s the way it could work.”

A dog barks, and John Ladd walks into the ranch house. He is the contrary yang to his dad’s composed yin.

‘We need workers’
He uses the pejorative term “wetback,” saying he refuses to be politically correct. Pro-migrant rallies incense him because he believes some Hispanics are looking to “take back” the Southwest.

Nevertheless, the 50-year-old son agrees with his father on the need for a worker program and a mechanism to expedite the citizenship process. “Anybody that doesn’t believe we need workers coming in is an idiot,” he says.

Though it pains him, he also agrees with Arizona’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, that walls and fences won’t solve anything. The Ladd ranch has a wall, a few hundred feet of steel barricading a small slice of border. John calls it “ugly”; immigrants walk around it. He’d much prefer a shorter rail barrier that migrants could hop but that would keep his cattle penned in and Mexican cattle out.

“Show me a 50-foot wall,” he says, “and I’ll show you a 55-foot ladder.”

A need for immigrants
Palmer never imagined that ranchers living at the border’s edge might see things his way.

His property is 40 miles north, so the foot traffic, trash and cut fences are more sporadic than what Strom and the Ladds are used to. If the stream was nonstop, he’d be so mad he couldn’t think straight. He felt like that years back when he put 27 splices in a half-mile of fence immigrants severed.

“I was about to shoot every one of ‘em myself,” he says.

He’s since changed his tune—because Palmer doesn’t just live with the effects of immigration, he needs immigrants to live.

He grows corn silage and alfalfa and runs a feed lot on 360 acres in Cochise County. He does this, nowadays, with the help of no one—save his wife, Ann, and his 3-year-old grandson, Colten, who on this morning is running to alert Grandma Ann that Papa Paul might need help getting cattle out of a pen.

“I can’t get the kind of help I need without getting guys out of old Mexico,” says Palmer, 52. “I keep hearing all this whining about these guys taking jobs, but I haven’t had anyone come looking for work.”

‘Documentally challenged’
Anyone other than those Palmer calls “documentally challenged.” He could use about three documentally challenged laborers. He’s got fences and equipment needing maintenance, painting to be done. But the workers Palmer employed in the past have moved on because they feared being caught working so close to the border.

So Palmer talks to friends at church, folks at the chamber and fellow farmers about the need for a legal way to hire foreign workers.

Certainly, not everyone agrees with him. In Cochise County, home to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corp., some ranchers scout for illegal crossers with infrared goggles or hold immigrants at gunpoint until the Border Patrol shows up.

Resident Dave Stoddard, a retired Border Patrol agent, believes employers like Palmer don’t want to pay what it takes to hire American workers. Those touting a guest-worker program “already have a supply of workers available if they would pay more, give better benefits and working conditions,” he said in an e-mail.

Others, like rancher Ruth Evelyn Cowan, are skeptical the government could come up with a functioning worker system. Cowan sold half her cattle herd and moved full-time back to Phoenix last year after getting fed up with the immigration traffic and trash.

“I would like for the Mexican government to take care of their people and I would like the Mexican people to demonstrate against their own country,” she says. “We have laws on the books. Enforce ‘em. The end.”

For Palmer, the center is a strange place to be.

“I’m a patriot, and I’m ready to whup anybody that means harm to this country. But we’ve got to look at this thing realistically,” he says. “I’m not usually a middle-of-the-road guy. But surely there’s something in the middle.”

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