World·CBC in Arizona

'Won't change a damn thing': For border ranchers fuming about illegal migrants, midterms bring little hope

For ranchers and residents living on the southern U.S. border, solving the problem of illegal immigration looks a lot harder now that the Democrats are running the House of Representatives.

'We all support the wall. Now it's going to be jeopardized,' Tucson Republican says

Ed Ashurst, 67, operates a 53,000-acre ranch in the southeast corner of Arizona, where he says he's seen thousands of illegal migrants over the years, and has experienced burglaries at his ranch house. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Ed Ashurst, a sun-darkened rancher with beefy hands and a cowboy hat streaked with dirt, wants to make one thing clear.

"You keep asking about election, election, election," the 67-year-old says from his ranch house in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, three hours from Tucson and just 50 kilometres from the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump supporter and self-described cowboy leans forward, aiming his index finger for emphasis.

"It won't change a damn thing," about what he believes to be a crisis of illegal immigration, he says.

That certainly might be true with a newly divided U.S. Congress.

On Wednesday morning, Ashurst awoke at his 53,000-acre ranch to a new congressional configuration, with Democrats having won the House of Representatives on the back of a long-rumoured "blue wave" that finally materialized overnight. It was not the outcome he was hoping for, though Republicans retained the Senate.

Ashurst, seated, speaks with Mike Holberg, a friend and deer hunter, in the kitchen of his ranch house near Douglas, Ariz. Ashurst says he doubts Congress will ever have the political will to properly solve what he believes to be an illegal immigration crisis. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Out in the Arizona mountains, where Ashurst says he's seen thousands of undocumented migrants crossing from Mexico through scrub oak and rocky terrain, sometimes hauling what he suspects to be drugs, illegal immigration is more than just a campaign issue. It's an infuriating reality that he says he can observe from his kitchen window, far from the clinking champagne glasses of Tuesday's election-night parties.

A friend and cattle-ranching neighbour of his, Robert Krentz, was murdered in 2010 by a suspected illegal immigrant or drug smuggler. And this past March, he said, migrant "aliens" broke into his home.

"Stole nine guns, some money and jewelry, credit cards," he says. "Walk into the door and this floor was full of dirty socks. They got in our dresser drawers and took every clean pair of socks we had."

Ashurst with his wife in the kitchen of their ranch home. The rancher says he's chased away illegal immigrants who have tried to break into his home. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

If the view from Washington after an election consumed by immigrant issues comes down to partisan winners and losers, the view from the southern border might be bleaker for residents who live right on it. Win or lose for Republicans, Ashurst holds the same fatalistic view: Congress simply doesn't have the will to solve what he believes to be a broken U.S. immigration system.

"The problem is the Border Patrol. The bureaucracy in Washington is so heavy," he says with a snort of derision. "Those guys are in control, and nothing changes. And Congress don't care."

Before Tuesday night, Republicans at a Pima County election-viewing party in Tucson — about 100 kilometres from Mexico — feared Democrats would win the House. Now they'll reckon with losing Trump's long-promised wall along the border. 

The president has lost even more leverage to secure funds for the $25 billion wall that many Republicans had already bristled at. Now, they'll be distracted by years of congressional gridlock on top of it, said Debe Campos-Fleenor.

Debe Campos-Fleenor, a member of the Pima County Republican Party, attends an election-viewing event on Tuesday night in Tucson, Ariz. She worries that U.S. President Donald Trump's wall will never be built now that Democrats have control of the House of Representatives. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"They're going to try and do investigation after investigation. We're going to spend the next two years doing investigations," she grumbled at a table of Republican voters in a hotel conference centre.

"The Russians! The Russians!" her mother added, feigning concern about the probe into Russia's alleged collusion with Trump's presidential campaign.

"I support the wall. I'm a Hispanic. There's another Hispanic," Campos-Fleenor said, gesturing at another woman at the table. "And we all support the wall. Now it's going to be jeopardized."

Several attendees said they believed a conspiracy theory that the migrant caravan was a political stunt funded by Democrats to help liberals win elections.

Those views were shared among some suburban residents in the community of Sierra Vista this week. Trump's warnings about a caravan "crisis" captured residents' imaginations. The caravan of about 4,000 Central American migrants is dwindling by the day, and is reportedly filled with women and children walking barefoot with the intention of seeking asylum in the U.S.

Trump has described them as an "invasion" and ordered 5,200 troops to confront them at the border.

Arizonan John Ladd, left, with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Martha McSally. Ladd, 63, says he often sees groups of illegal migrants on the ranch where he works, just a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. (Submitted by John Ladd)

To Danielle Tarr, 35, a full-time mother in Sierra Vista who is married to an active-duty army officer, that sounds like a good use of military resources.

"We're really scary-close to the border," she said from her driveway, pointing out a range of lavender mountains that hemmed in her cookie-cutter neighbourhood of mustard homes with red-tiled roofs.

"You'll see a blimp in the sky sometimes, right up there, with a camera to watch the border. Because that's how close we are to Mexico."

Tarr is not convinced the participants in the caravan all have pure intentions, though there is no evidence that the caravan is rampant with "criminals," as Trump has suggested.

Tarr said she supports "legal" immigration. Told that the Central Americans would be abiding the law if they did, indeed, declare asylum and file for refugee status, she said others might try to circumvent the system.

John Ladd, 63, another rancher near the border town of Douglas, says he sees "about three groups" of migrants each day, and can watch them from his home shrink into the horizon.

"We saw them from the kitchen window for 25 years."

The cattle ranch that Ashurst operates is about 50 kilometres from the U.S.-Mexico border. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Ladd mostly wants to see more federal boots on the ground to watch the border. He also supports a wall, though he believes a physical wall itself isn't enough.

"But with the Democrats [in control of the House], that will never happen."

For his part, Ashurst, whose ranch is about 90 minutes east of his friend Ladd's, isn't particularly bothered about Trump's wall one way or the other.

"Build the damn wall," he said. "Spend multi-bazillions of dollars building your wall. It ain't gonna help nothing."

Nor does he think military forces can do much to reinforce it, as troops are legally barred from helping with law enforcement on U.S. soil.

"Most military people understand what that is — it's a political play."

But he's also quick to point out that, even with the midterms behind us, a caravan is still on its way, and could possibly reach the border in mid-December. Trump's intense focus on the subject has burned it into the public's consciousness, and it may not fade so quickly.

Ashurst isn't worried about it, he said, though he also offered what sounded like a dark vision.

"Trump will do something politically to stop them at the boundary. I don't know if they'll use bullets, but there will be a showdown," he said.

"And I think America will win."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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