The Unfiltered Border

On the author's tours, journalists and politicians can learn about the realities of the international line

Illegal immigration. Drug-smuggling. SB 1070. The murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Immigration-law reform. All of these news topics have originated in Tucson's backyard.

But a lot of the people involved in border-issues debates have never actually seen the borderlands—and many of those who do go only see the carefully orchestrated press junkets run by the Department of Homeland Security.

Several border-area residents, including me, run tours into the borderlands for media folks, documentary filmmakers and elected officials. We take people in to meet everyone from border-area business owners to aid workers, from ranchers to law-enforcement officers—and even an occasional migrant.

The goal is to show the entire spectrum, from how safe Nogales, Ariz., really is, to how dangerous the backcountry is, to the humanitarian crisis that haunts the borderlands.

Here are stories from three tours.


Tomi Hinkkanen, a foreign correspondent from the Finnish Broadcasting Company, asked for a border tour for him and a cameraman.

Why would anyone in Finland be interested in the U.S.-Mexico border? The answer from Hinkkanen: "We have a 1,000-kilometer border with Russia."

Indeed, there are serious border issues in Finland, and the network wanted to see what was similar and what was different about our border.

We went onto Dan Bell's ranch, which is just west of Nogales and is where the border fence ends. (It's also the area of the recent Murphy Fire, in which most of Dan's ranch was burned. The fire is suspected to have been started by a drug-smuggler or undocumented migrant.)

As we drove up to where the fancy new border fence ends, we could see the fence undulating over the hills to the east.

"That's no border fence," Hinkkanen said. "That's a Cristo art project."

We got to the fence's end—and Hinkkanen entered Mexico and walked back, while his cameraman shot the scene, showing how easy it was. In a few seconds, he violated two countries' immigration laws.

Hinkkanen then asked Bell: "Where are your border guards?"

"Border guards?" we all responded, puzzled, before explaining the Border Patrol, and the fact that U.S. law that does not allow the use of the military inside the country to enforce civilian laws (due to the Posse Comitatus Act). We then pointed out an encampment of National Guardsmen on a nearby hilltop. They were watching us with their field glasses.

The whole time we were running around the area where the border fence ends, no Border Patrol agent came anywhere near us.

"This is a joke?" Hinkkanen asked. "Where are your mine fields?" he also asked.

Bell, after getting over his shock at the question, proceeded to explain the agricultural-worker program that used to exist, and how we really need immigration-law reform to allow workers to live above-ground.

Bell also described his problems from a rancher point of view: people cutting his fences, trash everywhere, drug-cartel goons armed with automatic weapons, and the tragedy of migrants dying while trying to reach the interior of the U.S.

Bell then took the Finnish TV crew to a drinking fountain he had installed in one of the border canyons on a migrant trail, so crossers on his ranch could have water.


Chris Sautter is doing a documentary film about the border, and has interviewed everyone from Russell Pearce and Joe Arpaio to members of the Samaritans, who go out daily providing water and first aid to crossers.

In one scene, Sautter was on Morley Avenue in downtown Nogales, Ariz., a few hundred feet from the border. He was interviewing storekeepers about the importance of legal crossers who spend lots of money on the U.S. side of the line. At one point, the camera was set up on the sidewalk—and everyone vanished, hiding ... a strange reaction to a camera.

In another scene, Sautter had some of the aid workers talking about why people migrate in the first place, and got a lesson in how the North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in U.S. agri-business being able to sell corn in Mexico cheaper than the subsistence farmers in Mexico could grow it—leaving those farmers no choice but to leave Mexico.

A third scene involved digging through the "trash" at one of the places where migrants are picked up to be driven northward, after walking around a Border Patrol checkpoint.

The site was covered in discarded backpacks and clothing, and lots of personal effects, including family photos. The drill, it appears, is that once people make it to the pickup point, they change into the street clothes they carried north, and strip themselves of any identification—leaving their past behind.

One of the aid workers described how a missing migrant had been traced to an area near Tubac via the discarded personal items—but it was never found out whether the guy made it, or ended up dead out in the desert somewhere.

On another ranch farther west of Nogales, Sautter and his crew were taken down California Gulch, which is one of the most unsecured parts of the entire border. Sites where drug-cartel spotters sit on mountaintops were pointed out as we all stood next to a Normandy barrier "fence." One could see where someone had used a cutting torch to slice the fence, and bullet casings were all over the ground, along with the discarded plastic water bottles that are found all along migrant trails.

The rancher talked about the threat of the drug cartels, and said that American unions killed the Bracero Program, sparking illegal migration. The conversation shifted from the need to secure the border against drug cartels to the need for the legalization of immigrants and a guest-worker program.

That rancher also proudly showed where he had installed drinking fountains all over his ranch so no one would die there, and talked about migrants coming to his front door in need of food and water.


In April, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and members of the staff of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had the usual packaged tour with the Border Patrol in Nogales. The next day, they went out west onto the ranches—with ranchers and a former Border Patrol agent.

The trip included a journey up California Gulch to the border, during which the group didn't see a single Border Patrol agent.

One of the issues discussed on this trip was the conflict between security—the U.S. trying to finish the border fence and get Border Patrol agents access in wilderness areas—and environmental concerns regarding the fence and access roads. The Government Accountability Office had recently released a report showing how the goal of securing the border is being frustrated by federal land managers and environmental groups.

There is no question the environment west of Nogales is spectacular; however, as the congressman and various staffers wandered around the border, they discussed whether the damage occurring farther into the United States could be reduced if the Border Patrol placed more of a concentration right on the border. Riding out of California Gulch, there was some not-so-joking discussion about putting Border Patrol and/or National Guard observation bases close into the line to stop the flow of drug-smugglers and illegal aliens.

Legislation was recently introduced in Congress to loosen environmental controls at the border so Border Patrol agents can operate more effectively.

It is one thing to read a GAO report, and another to see first-hand what the problem looks like on the ground.

One constant from the border tours is that people realize no border issues can be solved with just a taller fence or more Border Patrol agents. However, there are security issues, especially with the rise of drug-cartel control of border crossings in the backcountry. There is also a serious humanitarian crisis out there, and a need to get real about immigration reform.

When the documentary film crews and the politicians see their first rape tree and realize the horrors that are occurring to migrants, they begin to understand that Russell Pearce and Joe Arpaio don't have the answers to our "border problems."