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.
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.
Here, the Border Patrol has set up road checkpoints on the few roads that traverse the plains to capture migrants before they drive away-aided by alien smugglers known as "coyotes"-to Corpus Christi, Houston, or San Antonio and on into any part of America, where they may travel freely. Migrants have only two options, says Supervisory Border Patrol agent Roy Cervantes. They may sneak through the checkpoints in an 18-wheeler or car, or, he says, "they can try and walk."
And this is where Mr. Vickers comes in. His ranch lies just north of a checkpoint on the east side of Highway 281, nine miles south of Falfurrias. When migrants pass onto private ranchland to walk their way past the checkpoint, many pass through Mr. Vickers' land.
Confronting illegals on foot has become an all-too-common scenario for property owners. While burning up some brush stacks after dark recently, Mr. Vickers spotted nearly 30 migrants swimming across the river and crossing onto his land. "I remember thinking, we'll have to wait and see what happens," he said. "I've got one pistol and five bullets."
As it turned out, the migrants weren't looking for trouble. They were looking for Mr. Vickers' cell phone. "They asked me to call the Border Patrol," he said. These migrants were from El Salvador and "they knew the system."
Deporting illegal aliens from Mexico is easy. The two governments have worked out deportation agreements, and Mexican migrants, once apprehended, can be bused back sometimes within hours. Not so for migrants from other nations. Without deportation agreements, the Border Patrol turns a caught illegal immigrant over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But, according to Mr. Cervantes, immigration detention centers are full, meaning immigrants are routinely released and told to report back for a deportation hearing. Few actually show up. Even Mexican migrants have been known to claim another Latin American country as home as a way of skirting the system.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised to end the government's infamous catch-and-release program. "Return every single illegal entrant-no exceptions," Mr. Chertoff said in prepared testimony on Oct. 18.
That's not the only soft spot in the nation's border enforcement. After this year throwing more money at the Border Patrol, GOP leaders in Congress promised last week to put overhauling immigration at the top of next year's legislative agenda. Jockeying to lead immigration reform in the Senate, GOP presidential hopefuls Bill Frist, John McCain, and Chuck Hagel announced an agreement on Oct. 25 "that comprehensive immigration reform is the way to go," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn. "You can't fix a piece of this and claim victory."
Two decades ago, illegal immigration consisted mostly of a slow but steady stream of Mexican peasants traveling in pairs or small groups. Now in northern Mexico-an area the Mexican government has traditionally had trouble governing-smuggling immigrants north has become an industry all its own.
Migrants shell out big bucks to smugglers. According to Mr. Cervantes, whose agents routinely interrogate illegal aliens, migrants from South America can pay up to $5,000 to smugglers, or "coyotes," for passing into the United States. Mexicans who live closer generally pay a coyote up to $1,000.
Once across the river, migrants enter safehouses where they do odd jobs to help pay the fee. Eventually they'll begin their hike through brush country and cattle land. On County Road 304 in the tiny village of Encino, south of the checkpoint on Highway 281, all the fences on the south side of the road are intact, while the fences on the north are tattered-a good sign illegals use it as a drop-off point.
"The smuggler can tell them they're only walking through the brush for a couple of hours, but it may be up to seven days," Mr. Cervantes said. "These people think they're not going to be out there for very long, so they don't bring much in the way of food and water." Last year the Border Patrol rescued 159 migrants in south Texas.
In September, a female immigrant's body was found just 400 yards from Mr. Vickers' ranch home. She had been raped and murdered, possibly by a smuggler. According to Border Patrol reports, 139 migrants died making the journey in 2003. According to a study by the Arizona Daily Star, 193 died in 2004. If an immigrant makes it through the brush alive and without being detected, he must rendezvous with a ride into Houston, San Antonio, or even Falfurrias, where local ranchers and Minutemen say migrants use a Greyhound bus station to get to their destination.
Kim Fromme can tell by footprints how many people have been walking through the sandy terrain of the brush country, and even what kind of shoes they're wearing. "See that wavy pattern," he says, pointing to the ground. "That's a sandal. Walking through here in sandals."
Mr. Fromme, a safety inspector and part-time rancher from Goliad, Texas, is one of about 60 volunteers who show up every afternoon for the Minuteman patrol of Brooks County ranchland. He's seen the effects of illegal immigration in his town. "I'm here because I don't want this in Goliad," he says. "In America, we shouldn't have to resort to this."
Mr. Fromme doesn't spend much time in the three-man groups who sit in lawn chairs in the still Texas night searching for migrants through night-vision goggles. Instead, he drives the ranches during the day, picking up abandoned supplies dropped by migrants and checking the traffic patterns by counting the fresh footprints.
He looks at the trash left by illegals the way a biologist might look at animal scat. One fresh pile of trash had a few empty one-gallon jugs of water, an empty bag of cheddar-cheese Bugles, and two pairs of jeans. He said immigrants often change into fresh clothes before emerging from the ranchland back onto the highway. Mr. Fromme uses a machete to skewer the trash and load it in the back of his Jeep Wrangler 4x4.
Tonight, Mr. Fromme sets up to observe the activity in the Highway 281 rest stop just north of the checkpoint. The Minutemen are convinced the rest stop functions as a major meeting spot for migrants and smugglers who will take them the rest of the way. Mr. Cervantes with the Border Patrol doesn't dispute this, but he adds that it's not the most popular pickup point. This may explain why Border Patrol agents don't have 24-hour surveillance on the rest stop and sometimes only go there if the Minutemen call them.
Just such a call goes out when one team of Minutemen spots a pair of migrants just after 11 p.m. along Mr. Vickers' fence that runs next to Highway 281-directly across from the rest stop. While the immigrants change into clean clothes, the Border Patrol arrives and nabs four hiding by the fence line. "Chalk one up for the good guys," Mr. Fromme says.
A bit later, the Minutemen make another call, this time reporting 20 in a group, trekking north through Mr. Vickers' property. When the Border Patrol arrives-with lights flashing-the group scatters. Only six Salvadoran children are caught. The rest-like so many others on this vast underground railroad-just melt into the night.