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Five years ago, my husband and I bought a house in the emptiest county in America. We went there because the night sky is so dark, you can walk in the high desert by starlight and cast a shadow, so dark you can see distant galaxies and the zodiacal light. There are three types of people in our rural area: amateur astronomers, ranchers, and illegal aliens.
If you climb the mountains behind our house and look south, you look into Mexico. If you climb those mountains to the top, you are on one of the major drug trafficking routes into America. If you stay in the desert at the foot of the mountains, you are in rattlesnake country—the greatest biodiversity of rattlers in America, and the night path of illegal aliens.
It is not even a secret that the 60 miles between the border and Interstate 10 are treated as a no man’s land. We live and vote and pay taxes in America, but the government acts as if we are beyond the defensible perimeter of the country. Border Patrol is everywhere, but even with President Trump, they are just going through the circular motions of catch and release.
They have high tech listening stations in the mountains, trucks equipped with radar on the back roads. They know when drugs are moving through, know regular drop-offs, are adept at finding caches. But if they can’t secure the border, they can’t keep the families that live here safe—and they don’t even try.
We are the deplorables. All of my rancher neighbors have guns. Most are Evangelicals. To Democrats and open-borders Republicans, we are throwaway people. The Other. Disposable.
The reason I am not naming names, even place names, is that these are my neighbors’ stories, not mine, and my neighbors—farmers, cowboys, and ranching families, strong, resourceful, tough people—my neighbors are wary and they are weary. They fear retribution by the drug runners and coyotes who bring the illegals across, because they have seen it happen.
All of my neighbors have had encounters with illegals. Every single family. Everyone knows dozens of families whose homes have been broken into and worse—loved ones tied up, kidnapped, threatened, shot, permanently crippled by a hit and run attack, when they made too much of a fuss to authorities.
They hear a knock on their door in the dark of night. What would you do?
The Bible says to care for the stranger. So people here do not pick up a shotgun or a pistol and noisily cock the hammer—all it would take to say, “Be on your way.” You can’t know if it is a decent soul out there, thirsty and lost, abandoned by their “coyote,” or a murderous villain. These Christian ranchers open their doors in the night. There may be someone in trouble in the desert out there, so they open their door.
Sometimes it works out just fine. More and more often, it does not.
Some ranchers, especially right on the border, have finally admitted it is too dangerous. They have sold their beloved land, and walked away from a lifetime of face-to-face relations with neighbors and family, an irreplaceable life, under a big sky, close to land and community and God.
What else can they do? They have petitioned their elected officials. They have spoken to reporters. They have even talked around the kitchen table to the presidential candidates who make the obligatory visit to the border every four years. Some politicians really care and some really do not, but it makes little difference. President Trump is popular here and taken as sincere. But so far, he has been blocked by our contemptuous GOP elite.
The defensible border is moving north all the time. The crime starts here, but it does not end here. It is in your neighborhood, too.
You hear the stories whenever people get together. I hear them when I am driving with a rancher friend and we pass a car with someone she knows. It’s the kind of place where you can stop in the middle of the road and have a chat. Did you hear about so and so?
Neighbors are worried about an 80-something widow who always gives illegals food and water. This time when she opened her door at 3 a.m., the illegals pushed into the house, tied her up and robbed her. Living by herself was never a problem before. These are not rural Mexicans looking for work, like when she was young. They are dangerous criminals. Will she be able to keep her home?
Neighbors are worried because a crucial member of the community—the man who digs wells—was waylaid on a distant ranch, taken at gunpoint along with his truck, his family’s lives threatened if he ever told, and forced to transport a load of drugs.
Neighbors are worried because the illegal they spotted crossing their ranch was no Mexican. They took a photo with a long lens. I look at their photo. It sure looks like the long, narrow face of a Somali.
Neighbors are worried because an older couple on an isolated ranch (is there any other kind?) were in bed asleep, when they heard men ransacking their kitchen. This was the third time. A few months ago, the wife was forced at gunpoint to take a pregnant woman to the hospital to deliver an anchor baby. How much longer will they be able to keep the ranch?
Another neighbor arrived home from the hour and a half trip to the nearest supermarket. The ground was muddy, so he carried his five-year-old daughter to the front door of his small house. When he turned around with a heavy bag of groceries in each arm, there was an illegal standing in the doorway, between him and his daughter. The illegal was wearing the man’s clothes, his hat, and was wearing his gun.
Given the circumstances, the American father ran the guy off with no confrontation. Next day, border patrol called. They’d caught the thief—could he come by to identify his clothes and gun. The answer was sure, but it would be two hours, as he was at a doctor’s appointment. Our neighbor was told, “We’re not allowed to hold him that long. We’ll have to let him go.”
And they did.
I take the story as a metaphor, even though it doesn’t meet the strict meaning of the term. When someone can walk into your country, enter your house, take your gun, your hat, and your clothes and the authorities aren’t allowed to arrest him—that’s not a metaphor for losing your identity, your home, and your country.
It’s the real thing.
Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images