Video: Border town's struggle

NBC News correspondent
updated 5/11/2005 7:16:30 PM ET 2005-05-11T23:16:30

There is no doubt border communities, like here in southern Arizona, have benefited economically and culturally from the legal immigrants who live and work here. But residents say illegal immigration is a much different story.

At an early morning roundup at the Single Star Ranch, Bud Strom inspects his cattle and then the fence-line — looking for signs of illegal immigrants. He has reason to worry. By his count, 1,000 illegal immigrants cross his ranch near the Mexican border every week.

“If they’re savvy, they'll open the gate and close it behind them,” says Strom. “If they're not, they'll cut the wires.”

Strom has lost cattle and had other property stolen from his ranch. He wonders if it will ever end.

“It's just very aggravating,” he says.

It’s also costly for border communities. Sierra Vista's small hospital bustles with patients, but it may lose $600,000 this year treating illegal immigrants who can't pay. Hospital administrators are then forced into passing along those costs to paying customers.

Then there are the environmental costs.

The Ramsey Canyon Preserve attracts not only nature lovers, but also migrants who dump supplies and garbage after crossing the desert into Arizona.

“Cleaning up the trash is horrendous,” says Brooke Gebow with the preserve. “We don’t have the money or resources to do that.”

Officials in many border communities say the problems have gotten worse in recent years.

“There seems to have been very little done in reality over that time to curb it,” says Chuck Potucek, the city manager of Sierra Vista.

That's exactly the explanation given by civilian volunteers called the Minutemen, who staged a much-publicized patrol of the border in April to call attention to the issue.

The challenges are daunting: Patrolling 388 miles of rugged Arizona border with only about 2,800 federal agents. Some believe there’s a reason the government is not cracking down more.

“The United States is benefiting dramatically from cheap labor,” says Rev. Robin Hoover, a Christian minister who runs Humane Borders, which installs and maintains water stations for immigrants crossing the harsh desert.

In fact, much of the economy here is fueled by an immigrant work force, both legal and illegal.

For those who try to get here, the dangers are real. Some 250 migrants died in the desert last year.

“The migrants, of course, are bearing untold human suffering,” say Hoover.

Hoover shares the same goal as rancher Bud Strom, who says Washington should realize that while illegal immigration is a national issue, it is first a local problem, with people in communities like Sierra Vista paying the price.

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