Issue Reporting: The Border War’s Other Casualty: Normalcy

STANFIELD, Ariz.—Pat Brasington and I are bouncing down a stony road, his AR-15 rifle tucked down between his right leg and the center console, the way that it always is when he works south of I-8.

The weather is at odds with itself, the way it sometimes gets in Arizona during the fall. It’s overcast but bright, and while the brown mountains that frame the stony road are looking dull, the white gravel we’re rumbling over is snow bright.

There’s a quiet moment after a bump, and I ask the question I’ve been playing with in my head: “Did you ever think that you’d be giving people tickets for doing humanitarian deeds?”

Brasington laughs the hard laugh.

“No. Never.”

There is the U.S.-Mexico border that you’ve heard about, where immigrants are coming through in droves, drugs are entering in increasing numbers, and two governors have declared a state of emergency because the southern thirds of their states are overrun. Then there is the border you don’t hear about, which is Pat Brasington’s border. Every day there is another casualty in the country’s border war. The one that’s the hardest to see unless you live in it is what’s happening to normalcy. What is normal down here—the AR-15 on the seat, the two undocumented immigrants standing on your front porch asking por agua, por favor—is not normal anywhere else.

And we’re not even really at the border. Brasington is a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, and he patrols the Sonoran Desert National Monument, 496,000 acres of heartbreakingly beautiful and lonely desert an hour southwest of Phoenix and 70 miles, as the crow flies, from the border. The monument is also the northern terminus of many of the smuggling routes that come up from Mexico, so it functions like an extension of the border, with all the weirdness you find further south. Which is why Brasington, who took the position five years ago thinking it was a going to be a job where he was protecting resources, spends many of his days doing Border Patrol stuff. He estimates the six rangers in the BLM’s Phoenix field office spend 60 percent of their time on border enforcement.

That’s why last year, when he ran into a group of men being good Samaritans, he threatened to give them a ticket. The men, from a church, were putting water jugs out for the undocumented immigrants who would come through. It’s good for the immigrants, who, by the time they reach that point, have likely been walking for five days and are in varied states of dehydration. But putting the water jugs out on the monument is a violation of federal code. It’s littering. Brasington is a sworn federal law enforcement officer. So, he threatened to ticket them and watched until the men picked up all the water jugs.

Simple kindnesses here are anything but black and white. They encourage more migration. Put up a water station for the migrants, and you give them a false sense of security that they can make it across this desert. Don’t put it up and you deny the truth: that there is an inexhaustible supply of people willing to risk their lives to come to this country.

Then there’s Shannon Kipper, your basic, law-abiding American citizen, a wife and mother who happens to live three miles north of the monument’s northern edge. Her normal is not your normal. Her house used to get buzzed by a small airplane a couple of nights a month, and every morning after, a Ford F150 would bump down the road near her house. It was probably a cocaine drop, and after the cops busted the pickup guy in a sting, the plane didn’t come around anymore. But that’s Kipper’s normal. That and lying in bed at night and hearing voices en español and the march of feet on a nearby back road.

It was three years ago that Kipper came home from shopping and found stuff in her house moved around. Shortly thereafter, she saw two undocumented immigrants coming up to her door. They wanted water and a ride. They got the water. Kipper locked her doors and called her husband, who called Brasington, since the local sheriff’s department can never find their place. Brasington happened to be in the area and led other officers there. They raised a rooster tail of dust, and when Kipper looked at the trailer on the property next to hers, she saw 10 immigrants bailing out of it. The Border Patrol and Brasington and the county sheriff’s guys caught all but one of the men.

The 10th man ran off into the washes, only to reappear at Kipper’s door a few hours later. He looked rough, worn out. He spoke English. He had lived in Detroit for six years, he told her, and had had to return to Mexico to attend to some family matters. He was trying to get back to the rest of his family in Detroit. Kipper gave him water and then invited him in. He entertained her kids. He was supposed to meet a coyote, a smuggler, at the McDonald’s in Ajo, the first sizable town you hit if you come across the border further west, through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge; the man was more than 100 miles from Ajo.

There was something wrong with that story, Kipper thought. There’s no McDonald’s in Ajo, and getting there would require the man to backtrack four days’ walk. She told him that she was going to call the Border Patrol, and he didn’t seem to mind. An hour passed, and the Border Patrol didn’t come. The man lay in front of the swamp cooler and fell asleep. The Border Patrol still didn’t come. Now, put yourself in Kipper’s shoes. You’ve had a hell of a morning already, there’s an undocumented immigrant sleeping on your floor, and the Border Patrol isn’t coming. What do you do? Do you hold him? Or do you give him directions, tell him there’s no McDonald’s in Ajo, and that if he goes there, he’s just going to get hurt, then let him walk away?

“Pat says don’t give them water,” Kipper says. “He says just lock the doors and call him. But people here usually call after giving them water. I don’t want it on my conscience that someone died here.”

Brasington and I are walking out of a wash in a remote section of the monument, and I’m there when his posture changes from relaxed, with his rifle slung on his back, to slightly bent at the chest, rifle forward, finger on the trigger guard. It’s the classic infantryman’s patrol position. We hit the top, and he relaxes. I point out his change in posture, and he just looks at me.

“You know,” he says, “I didn’t even know I did that. It’s just instinct I guess, from working out here.”

We walk in silence for a minute, and Brasington starts talking.

“When I came here, I used to complain about the cows. They left pies everywhere, they cut trails through what should have been a wilderness area. Now I’ve got foot traffic and smugglers and someone potentially laying under any tree on the monument, and I have to wonder how they’ll react when they see me, because they’re not supposed to be in this country.”

Brasington’s a pretty positive, cheerful guy. But his voice gets an edge to it on this topic.

That’s normal these days, too.

Slate.com
Dec. 8, 2005