Cover Story

Illegal invasion

Texas Minutemen are leading an all-volunteer assault on a migrant wave of crime that border-crossing federal agents can't-or won't-stop

Issue: "Stand in the gap," Nov. 5, 2005

FALFURRIAS, Texas -- It all started going downhill when they started cutting his fences. South Texas rancher Mike Vickers says two decades ago he had a good relationship with illegal immigrants who used to pass through his land. "They were respectful, asked for a job," he said. "We'd give them food and water and send them on. But it wasn't the big groups. It wasn't the invasion."

Now things are different. A nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint has made his Texas ranch near Falfurrias a main track on an underground railroad where thousands of illegal immigrants move north. When Mr. Vickers isn't picking up trash from the previous night's train of immigrants-up to 100 every night-he's fixing holes cut into his fences by passing migrants. "Then there's the property damage-the absolute, uncontrolled destruction of property. Destroying water sources, vandalizing barns and houses, stealing horses. Tearing up whatever they come across. And trashing up your property," he says.

With an average of over 11,000 illegals caught each month by U.S. agents in south Texas alone, it's not hard to understand why Mr. Vickers and other ranchers and residents are turning to fellow citizens to defend their land. The U.S. government, according to Mr. Vickers, has failed him in its most basic function, to secure and defend its borders.

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The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps opened a one-month operation in Brooks County Oct. 1 with 22 volunteers at its training session. Soon enough the project had 60 volunteers each night, manning surveillance posts across 120,000 acres of Texas ranchland. The group-sometimes called vigilantes by groups like the ACLU-spots dozens of illegal immigrants every night and reports to the U.S. Border Patrol, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Minuteman leaders admit the month-long project did not meet their main goals; the Border Patrol never captured most of the immigrants spotted by the volunteer force. But Mr. Vickers says the number and fervor of Minuteman volunteers give him hope that even if his government isn't paying attention to his plight, now perhaps his neighbors are.

The Border Patrol says that during its last fiscal year ending in September 2005, agents apprehended 1.2 million illegal aliens. In south Texas alone, agents caught 137,083 migrants and arrested 2,048 smugglers. And that's just who was caught-the Border Patrol will not estimate how many slip through undetected. Experts say nearly 1 million illegal immigrants could be entering from the nation's southern border alone each year.

The influx, and the cottage industry of smuggling that has arisen, has created a dangerous environment for locals. Two illegal aliens approached a Vickers neighbor near Hebbronville as he was working on his corral pens at 10:30 one night. The rancher asked the migrants to leave, but they held him at gunpoint, robbed him, tied him to a tree, shot him twice, and stole his pickup. "He was able to get himself untied and to the highway and I got him to the hospital," said Mr. Vickers. "He almost bled out but he survived. That's the kind of violence I'm talking about."

Such violence is only getting worse. Border Patrol agents captured 800 pounds of marijuana (worth about $450,000) Oct. 19 from a group of drug smugglers trying to swim across the Rio Grande near Mission. When the U.S. agents moved in, smugglers from the Mexican side of the river fired upon them in volleys. No Border Patrol agents were hurt and the smugglers swam back to Mexico after failing to ram their way through a Border Patrol barricade in a pickup.

The immigration through south Texas doesn't just affect the Valley and the ranches to the north. The tons of drugs that pass through south Texas diffuse throughout the nation. The notorious street gang, MS-13, apparently uses the Valley as a major conduit between the United States and El Salvador. Its links to al-Qaeda and overseas crime rings multiply the security threat looming in south Texas. It's not only Central Americans crossing the border; Mr. Vickers reported finding Sudanese dinars on the ground after one group of illegals breached his ranch last January.

If the geography of the Coastal Sand Plains makes it good land for ranching, it's also partly to blame for ranchers' migrant problem. Mr. Vickers' 2,000 acres of grazing land lie 75 miles north of the Rio Grande-an unlikely place to make a stand against illegal immigration so far from the river boundary dividing Mexico and the United States. But the Border Patrol has made the barren region, home to massive and vital ranches north of the lush Rio Grande Valley, its last stand against the tide of illegals. The river itself, they have learned, is no deterrent to Mexican peasants and organized drug cartels crossing into the United States.

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