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Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA/Landov

Border bandits

Illegal immigration may be down, but ranchers and farmers in south Texas say the influx continues and it's becoming more violent and criminal

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

FALFURRIAS, Texas-When Linda Vickers leaves home to feed the horses on her Texas ranch each morning, she takes three things: her dog, her cell phone, and her pistol.

For Vickers, these aren't just the trappings of a typical rural rancher: They're a way to guard against the potential danger of illegal aliens and to call U.S. Border Patrol agents if trouble erupts.

Though she hasn't used the gun, the dogs have warned her more than once: A few months ago, Vickers says the dogs "went ballistic" when she walked into the tack room. She discovered two illegal aliens sleeping on the floor.

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On another morning, a large man with a pencil-thin mustache followed Vickers from the barn to her home. She called Border Patrol agents, and they apprehended the Brazilian who had split from a group of 40 other illegal aliens. From her back porch, Vickers has watched groups of 10 or more illegal immigrants tromp through her land, and she admits: "It does feel like an invasion."

Vickers' experience isn't unusual among Texas ranchers, but it is notable for at least one reason: She lives nearly 70 miles north of the U.S-Mexico border. The ranch she shares with her husband, Mike Vickers, sits just outside the rural town of Falfurrias in south Texas, and a few miles from the final U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint heading north on Highway 281.

To clear that checkpoint, illegal immigrants have two options: Try to pass through it or try to go around it. Many try to skirt the checkpoint by fanning into the hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding farmland-including the Vickers' ranch. Human smugglers-known as coyotes-often drop illegal immigrants south of the checkpoint. Another coyote meets them in the brush for an often-treacherous journey to a waiting car north of the station.

Remarkably, thousands try to pass through the checkpoint, often hidden in trucks and cargo. By late October, agents at the Falfurrias checkpoint had apprehended 9,106 undocumented aliens since January. A sign outside the five-lane checkpoint offered another disturbing statistic that underscores a disturbing reality about some of the traffic moving through these rural areas: Since January, agents at the Falfurrias station had also seized 291,829 pounds of narcotics.

The U.S. Border Patrol reports a sharp drop in illegal immigration, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says the border has never been more secure-but local officials and residents in rural Texas tell a different story: Even if some numbers have dropped, illegal immigration remains a consistent problem, and cartel-related drug smuggling poses serious threats.

Indeed, better border security in some areas may be funneling illegal immigrants and drug smugglers to rural lands where the defenses are weaker. A February report from the Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. Border Patrol has achieved operational control of just 44 percent of the southern border. That reality leaves some locals in rural areas fending for themselves and creates national security concerns that extend far beyond border areas.

Examining problems with border security first requires acknowledging progress: The U.S. Border Patrol reported in July that the number of apprehensions of illegal aliens declined by 61 percent over a five-year period. The numbers dropped from 1,189,000 in 2005 to 463,000 in 2010.

The agency acknowledged that a struggling U.S. economy and a weak job market could be factors in the apparent drop in illegal immigration. But agency officials also touted better enforcement efforts, including nearly 700 miles of border fence along the southwestern border. (Many Texans question the effectiveness of the border fence and point to large gaps in many parts of the wall.)

In an El Paso speech in May, President Barack Obama touted the federal government's doubling of Border Patrol agents since 2004, an effort that began under President George W. Bush. Some 20,000 agents now patrol the southwest border. Two months earlier, Napolitano highlighted the low violent crime rates in Texas border towns. She declared: "The border is better now than it has ever been."

Don't tell that to Mike Vickers. On a hot afternoon in late October, the Falfurrias rancher and veterinarian pointed to a fresh set of footprints in the sandy ground on his 1,000-acre ranch. Boot prints followed sneaker prints and revealed last night's chase: Border Patrol agents pursued and apprehended 15 illegal immigrants crossing Vickers' ranch.

The agents had help: Volunteers from Vickers' group-Texas Border Volunteers (TBV)-spotted the illegal aliens during a night watch and called Border Patrol to respond. They gave agents a GPS location for the group and tracked their movements until the agents arrived.

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