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Editor’s note: On Monday, Leader McCarthy and a dozen other House Republicans are headed to the southern border. Ahead of that visit, we’ve been talking with Americans whose livelihoods and communities are being affected by the growing crisis. We will be telling a few of their stories in the coming days to get a better understanding of the issues, and how we can solve them.

Last month alone, 100,000 migrants were encountered attempting to illegally cross our southern border. The number of migrant children detained at the border has tripled in just two weeks. The number of migrants who have tested positive for coronavirus after being released by Border Patrol into Texas has nearly doubled.

The deteriorating situation at the southern border is a full on crisis. While the Biden administration continues to downplay it, the media is acknowledging it under increased pressure from those demanding its attention. House Republicans have been sounding the alarm for weeks.

The numbers are horrifying, and almost slightly hard to grasp. What’s sadly too often left out of the conversation is how the numbers are affecting the livelihoods of communities and citizens along the border.

We spoke to a rancher in New Mexico named Russell Johnson. Russell’s family has been on the ranch since 1918, so he’s seen how the border issues have progressed or changed over the years. Illegal immigration is nothing new, but the scale and the intensity we’re seeing is alarming, and American citizens like Russell are paying for it.

Xchelzin Peña/Deming Headlight

When President Biden halted wall construction in January, it left a ¾ mile long gap right on Russell’s property where he lives with his wife and young kids. The area is remote, gets little service, and there often aren’t enough Border Patrol agents to monitor the space — making his property a prime place to illegally enter the country. Russell can’t quite understand why the Biden administration would stop construction with just less than a mile to go.

“[There is] a huge misconception that the general public hasn’t realized —  it’s not just the wall, it was an all inclusive project with all weather roads, the fiber optic (sensor) line that was going to be running with it. It was a complete package. The media doesn’t seem to be covering any of this,” Russell said.

Just about everybody’s house has been broken into near and around Russell’s community. Growing up on the ranch, Russell is accustomed to migrants coming up to his parents house asking for water or to use the phone — which he says they would never turn down. But now he’s experiencing more cattle theft, property damage, and break ins.  And with coronavirus, he’s uncomfortable with the proximity of hundreds of strangers on his property, in his various shacks around the ranch, and around his cattle. Russell says a small building he has about six miles from the border where he usually eats lunch or takes breaks while he’s working has been essentially destroyed. The couch cushions were burned, graphic drawings and images drawn everywhere, trash throughout. The door was broken off. In the past, he’d find feces and hypodermic needles in the cattle’s water troughs.

“With the way things are right now, we don’t let our kids play outside by themselves,” Russell says. “There’s no telling who they might encounter while they’re out there.”

On the southern side of his property is an abandoned Mexican village, which he says has become a staging ground for illegal traffic to cross into the U.S., which he thinks is the reason for the increase in foot traffic he’s seeing now. Currently, the only barrier is a barbed wire fence that he, not the government, maintains. Russell has brought up these concerns to Border Patrol, who says they don’t have the manpower to cover it all.

The materials and structures needed to finish the wall are all there, but the contractors on the ground are in a holding pattern until they hear further news. Russell doesn’t see the situation getting better under the current administration. In the meantime, he just asks that there be a stronger Border Patrol presence in the area, because as it is now, they don’t start apprehending people until they get farther north of the ranch. Russell is worried something could happen before Border Patrol even knows they’re there.

It’s not just a safety issue, it’s affecting his livelihood, too.

“Right now, we’re in what’s classified as a D4 drought. Where the gap is now is in part of a mountainous region of the ranch and there’s actually a lot of feed for our cattle in this area. But our cattle aren’t utilizing it right now and the only thing we can figure is that there’s enough traffic coming through this spot that it’s keeping the cattle out.” The barbed wire fence also gets broken through, and Mexican cattle that may have less stringent vaccination requirements can mingle with his, and vice versa.

Russell briefly left the ranch around 2011 and worked as a Border Patrol agent. “It’s not a very popular career field, especially in this area,” he said. But, “given that I was a Border Patrol agent, I’ve seen how things work. I worked in El Paso, Texas where we did have some kind of fencing. I talked to older agents that were there way before I was, before there was any kind of fencing. They said it used to be like the Wild Wild West down here. Towards the end of the shift, they’d just drive around town and load up their vehicle because [illegal immigrants] were everywhere. Once they put the fencing up, it slowed down dramatically.”

A pretty common question Russell gets is why don’t you just move?

“It’s pretty hard to pick up and move a ranch. We also feel like we are American citizens living in the United States. We shouldn’t be bullied into that by entities from another country. We should be afforded the same rights and safeties of someone living in Montana or Kansas. It shouldn’t matter whether we’re on the border or not.”

Russell and his wife don’t like to talk to the kids too much about their concerns, other than to say if you see someone, come tell us. Their dogs bark and howl constantly all throughout the night as they hear and smell people crossing.

“Our concerns out here for our kids should be are they gonna come across a snake? Or some other critter that might hurt them? Not are they going to have an individual walk up and try to take them,” he added.

As Russell said, he should be given the same protections and safeties that Americans across the country get. He loves his home and grew up here and feels it’s a great place to raise his family. They deserve more.


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