New Mexico Rancher Has Close-Up View Of Immigration Debate

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Rancher Chip Johns calls a spacious, hacienda-style house in southwestern Dona Ana County home. He's lived there about 25 years, ever since selling the food processing plant he used to own in Santa Teresa and jumping into the ranching business.

The 66-year-old said he's the nearest full-time county resident to the Mexican border, outside the urban center of El Paso, Texas. He said he doesn't feel extremely threatened by the undocumented immigrant traffic that crosses his ranch on a daily basis. He admitted the situation has its risks, but seemed resigned to accepting them.

"I play it real loose because that's my attitude," he said. "I can't really have anybody follow me around," he said, referring to hiring a security escort.

His 250,000-acre J.C.J. Ranch is made up of private and federal land. He said he and another property owner ranch all of the international border acreage between Santa Teresa and Columbus.

While Johns said the immigration problem doesn't seem especially bad at the moment in the county, he's concerned about what will happen because of the renewed focus on Arizona's border. He said he's worried immigrant traffic will shift toward New Mexico.

"When they close the border at Arizona, like they're going to do, all those people are going to start coming this way," he said.

The New Mexico Department of Agriculture recently announced that its livestock scale inspectors will now carry out inspections south of Interstate 10 accompanied by deputies from the Luna County and Hidalgo County sheriff's departments. Department spokeswoman Noreen Jaramillo said the decision wasn't made because of any problems that have occurred, but rather was precautionary.

"The main thing behind this is to be proactive," she said. "You can never be too safe."

Annually, the state inspects 32 livestock scales — used for determining cattle weights prior to shipping — in the region south of Interstate 10. Jaramillo said there are no state-conducted livestock scale inspections in Dona Ana County. Even though cattle operations exist, she said, ranchers have the option of using a private certification company.

Money to pay for the deputies will come from Operation Stonegarden funding, a federal grant that goes to law enforcement agencies in the border region, according to the agriculture department.

On May 25, President Barack Obama announced a plan to deploy 1,200 National Guard members to the international border, in response to concerns about a crime spillover from Mexico. The troops will provide support activities for federal enforcement agencies.

Details about which regions will receive the Guardsmen and how quickly they'll arrive have not been released from Washington, said Lt. Col. Jamison Herrera of the New Mexico National Guard.

Johns said he's doubtful any of those personnel will end up in Dona Ana County. Rather, he said he believes they'll be deployed to Arizona, currently the "squeaky wheel" in the immigration debate.

As of June 4, Johns said he last saw a group of immigrants about four days earlier, walking along the side of the road. He said "I just wave and keep on driving," adding that he has no plans to confront them.

Johns said he's concerned that a proposal for creating federally designated wilderness on acreage he ranches near the Potrillo Mountains, in the southwest corner of the county, would create an immigrant smuggling corridor because of prohibitions against vehicle travel in wilderness.

Advocates for wilderness have argued the move won't hinder law enforcement.

In addition, Johns said the lack of communication infrastructure in the southern part of the county is problematic. Cell phone coverage is hit-and-miss, he said.

The spark that ignited that debate was the shooting death in late March of southeastern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz. He was working in a remote area when he was killed, some have speculated by a drug trafficker. The murder prompted an outcry among ranchers and other residents in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, a region that perceives itself as one community.

Johns said he didn't know Krentz personally, but was "very disturbed" to learn of his death. He said such an incident was inevitable.

"I'm just sad it happened to him and not to someone like myself, who didn't have family," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.



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