Brandon Stockwell, a film student at SDSU, climbs to the top of the border fence south of Campo and examines the rolling desert ridges of rural Mexico. The day is bright, the winter air clean and mild. Stockwell considers how the scenery will translate to film. Would black and white or color be more effective? And what about the soundtrack? Stockwell is exploring the prospect of producing a documentary on border policy as a school project.
A motorbike appears in a plume of dust on the American side, and the helmeted driver yells, “What’s your citizenship?” Before Stockwell can answer, a Border Patrol truck that’s following behind skids to a stop, and the half-amused agent says, “Oh, never mind. You’re definitely a gringo.” The men vanish in a haze of dirt, and it occurs to Stockwell that he has just had his first encounter with a Minuteman.
The Campo Minutemen are a small group made up primarily of retired veterans who work in cooperation with the Border Patrol to prevent illegal immigrants and drug runners from entering the United States. With the aid of night-vision binoculars, electronic sensors, and off-road vehicles, the Minutemen act as an extra set of eyes and ears. Most of them carry or at least own firearms. However, the Minutemen exercise a rule of noninterference with border crossers. Their function is to inform the agents of sightings and to let them take care of the rest.
The fence is made from Vietnam-era corrugated-metal landing mat. It is easily overcome by a simple climb and a hop in a matter of seconds. Riddled with gaps and occasionally nonexistent, the fence is as porous as a cobweb, a veritable monument to futility.
The Minutemen camp sits near the fence a few miles down a dirt road off Highway 94. A handwritten sign reminds passersby to “WATCH BORDER” and “STOP illegal immigration.” A generator drones beneath an oak tree. Motion sensors leer from rusted fence posts. Several American flags, tattered and faded, flitter in the arid afternoon breeze. Once teeming with eager patriots answering a call to arms, the camp now appears desolate and run-down. Only four trailers remain, one of which is full of trash.
Stockwell gets in his silver sedan and follows the border road east. Rumor has it that a man lives out here somewhere, set away from the rest of the Minutemen in a truck on a hilltop. To the other Minutemen he is “Kingfish,” an archetype, one of the last remnants of the old guard who first arrived in the summer of 2005. The local Border Patrol agents refer to him as “the Pirate” on account of the patch he wears over his left eye. But to Stockwell, the man assumes a mythic personage — he is an Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts, a backcountry sage who roves the desert highlands alone, weathering cold nights and dubious circumstance.
The road is slick and steep. Stockwell’s car groans as it inches over a dusty hill. Chaparral, granite boulders, and the occasional roadside cactus dominate the expansive scenery. Border Patrol agents watch his progress, occasionally returning his timid wave, often stopping him to ask what brings him out here. They are alternately interrogative and congenial. Small talk is exchanged, but any questions make the agents suspicious and aloof. If Kingfish is Obi-Wan, the Border Patrol agents are Imperial Stormtroopers. They are the ultimate authority in this no-man’s-land.
The new section of wall becomes visible, a towering, rusted monolith of vertical metal slats that extend at least 20 feet skyward and 6 underground. There is no climbing the new wall. Furthermore, the spaced slats allow the wall to be see-through while remaining impassable, a bitter slap to the jowls of potential crossers. But just a few hundred yards to the east, the new wall ends, giving way to a shoddy stretch of landing mat and old rebar.
A few miles out from the main camp, Stockwell spots him. Parked high up on a vantage point beneath a power pylon, the truck occupies the best real estate around. Stockwell pulls over to the side of the road and makes his way through a maze of scrub brush and boulders, contemplating his intentions. What should he say? Will he be welcomed? Should he have brought some beer as a peace offering? Spare batteries as a thoughtful gift?
Stockwell crests the hill, and there he is, Kingfish, smiling and waving as if he’d been expecting Stockwell all along. A black dog bounds through the brush, smelling Stockwell’s hands. “Come on up,” Kingfish says. He stands tall in a plaid long-sleeved shirt and tan slacks, a nine-millimeter pistol tucked in the belt. A sticker in his camper window counsels, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a soldier.” Beneath a wool beanie, his good eye scrutinizes the guest with a mixture of warmth and curiosity. “What brings you out here?” Kingfish asks.
“Well,” replies Stockwell, “I suppose I’m here to ask you the same.”
Britt “Kingfish” Craig says he has long felt a deep-rooted sense of appreciation and respect for his country. As a young man, Craig went to Vietnam to defend the American way of life, the national dream forged and handed down to him by his predecessors. Craig was wounded and given a medical discharge, but his sense of duty remained strong. While living in St. Augustine, Florida, in 2002, Craig ran for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives on behalf of the Libertarian Party. He received 11 percent of the vote.
Encouraged by his success, Craig considered running again but found a more immediate means of defending the dream in April 2005 at a Minutemen gathering in Arizona. Over 600 vigilantes showed up for the meeting at the border south of Tombstone. In June, Craig and several others relocated to Campo, where for months they contended with student demonstrators who accused them of being racists and over-the-hill eccentrics. As time went by, the fervor of both protestors and fellow Minutemen fizzled out.
Now Craig is one of only a handful left in Campo. He sees his time on the border as a way of completing his term of service to the American people, cut short years ago by the loss of his eye.
“I believe in all my heart that we have the all-around better society here in the United States,” says Craig. “The idea that somebody born in Mexico City can have the birthright of someone born in Los Angeles or Anniston, Alabama, just isn’t right. It isn’t theirs. It’s ours.”
Craig recalls the day last summer when agent Robert Rosas was killed in the line of duty. Rosas had been parked about 50 yards from Craig’s truck on the evening of July 23, 2009. They had exchanged small talk and joked about Craig’s aggressive Chihuahua.
“Agent Rosas told me they were tracking four people,” Craig relates. “I walked back to my truck and, just out of the force of habit, scanned the border with my optical device. I saw two people standing just inside the wall. One pointed up at me. I instinctively shied away because I knew I was being silhouetted in the sunset. So I ducked down behind the truck and tried to reacquire them visually, but when I ducked, they ducked. I saw them for about a second and a half. I will always regret not sitting there for about five seconds and describing them to myself. That’s how you remember, you know. ‘Blue pants, red coat.’ But I walked up to Rosas’s truck and said, ‘I think I may have seen a couple of your guys down there.’ And Rosas said, ‘That’s okay. The scope truck’s got them.’ As he started away I jokingly asked him, ‘You sure you don’t want to take the attack Chihuahua with you?’ And he said, ‘Sure, throw it in the back of the truck. We’re going to catch these guys. I’ll come back and tell you about it.’ And that’s probably the last thing he said person-to-person to a human being. He drove off over the hill.”
This was at 8:40 p.m. Around 8:53, Craig heard four spaced gunshots followed by four fast shots. He made the call within two minutes.
“I told them, ‘I’m not sure if it’s on the American side or just over the border.’ A truck got down there about five minutes later. And then, you’ve never seen so many vehicles and helicopters out here in your life.… It was quickly discovered that Rosas’s gun was missing.”
The police began a manhunt for the person who had Rosas’s stolen pistol and soon found a suspect. The incident was the first on-duty slaying of a Border Patrol agent in ten years.
“[The police] came up with this fat, dreary guy with a big old beard [Ernesto Parra Valenzuela, 36],” says Craig. “A gangster. He looked like the drunk from The Andy Griffith Show. He’s holding a nine-millimeter Beretta in this supposed police lineup; you know, because everyone goes to a police lineup holding a gun. Most agents carry a Beretta, but Rosas had a different pistol. So they tried [to pin him as a suspect], but that one didn’t fly.
“Then they came up with this kid who the government of Mexico turned over on the condition that he couldn’t face capital punishment. The fact that he was 17 at the time of the killing gave him protection. They tried to say [the perpetrators] were trying to strong-arm rob agent Rosas. Now, [the perpetrators] didn’t have a weapon. Agent Rosas was in uniform, so he wasn’t going to have much money on him anyway. Being a Border Patrol agent, he was guaranteed to be less than 55 years old, in good shape, and armed. The kid claimed he was with some people, but he didn’t know who they were. If you are planning to rob an armed Border Patrol agent, you’re going to know the people with you. I know three or four of the true killers are still out there.”
In November, Christian Daniel Castro Alvarez pleaded guilty to murdering Rosas during an attempted robbery. He is expected to face life in prison.
But the official story that Rosas was engaged in a typical foot pursuit at the time of the shooting doesn’t ring true with Craig. “One of the revealing things about the Rosas killing that doesn’t make sense is that he didn’t close the door of his truck. Whenever an agent gets out to track somebody, they always close and lock the door. He must have responded to something disturbing or critical real fast. He wasn’t tracking anybody in the normal sense of the word.”
Such activity is in accord with much of what Craig has observed in his four and a half years on the border. “I’ve seen people who come to the border, stooge around, and I have photos of very similar-build people [as the ones spotted the day of the shooting] fooling around the border after the incident. I don’t know what they’re doing. Many people are out here doing things that don’t make any economic sense. These people may very well have come over to hijack an agent just to show that they could. It makes no economic sense, but it makes great political sense. It would show that they could terrorize the U.S. police the same way they terrorize the Mexican police. Last week there were five people who crossed over and went directly to agent Rosas’s memorial cross. They never did anything to make any money. They had a different motive. And I believe that motive is something political — minor-league guerilla incursions against the law.”
A few years ago, Craig spotted a group of about 15 people dressed in black with red bandannas. “Probably they weren’t real Zapatistas, but they were wannabe Zapatistas. And they weren’t making any money. They were entering the United States illegally in what amounts to revolutionary rebel uniforms. For practice? I don’t know. For thrills? I don’t know. But I believe there is a political motivation. And I think [the political motive] makes a lot more sense than the idea of trying to strong-arm rob an officer of the law. Maybe they are trying to get some sort of overreaction from the Border Patrol. The worst case of Border Patrol antagonism I’ve seen is when about 40 people from the Mennonite Church over there crossed the border and had a wedding. Sometimes people throw feces at the Border Patrol from across the fence. It’s not going to make you any money. It’s not classic criminal activity. Throwing rocks at an armed man? Robbing an armed man? Dressing like revolutionaries and crossing the border? It makes no sense economically. It’s a real assault on the border — trying to destabilize the border to the point where it doesn’t exist.
“If they only wanted to rob agent Rosas, they didn’t need to shoot him once in the neck and three times in the back of the head. It was an execution. The whole thing looked like a setup in order to kill somebody. The fact that five people came across about ten days ago, went directly to the monument, and got chased off tells me something more is going on. It’s provocation. It’s been going on in one way or another ever since I got out here.” This type of activity accounts for about half of the movement Craig observes on the border.
Craig bears no ill will toward the men and women who enter the country illegally. He acknowledges that he would do the same were he in their situation.
“Anybody is going to try to better themselves. Anybody is going to try to feed their family. But that doesn’t make it right.”
Because illegal immigrants are often willing to work for a fraction of what U.S. citizens will work for, Craig contends, entire industries are hurt, putting Americans out of work. Furthermore, illegal immigrants are subject to mistreatment ranging from being overworked and underpaid to not being paid at all.
“What’s he going to do?” asks Craig. “Call the cops? Just as bad as you want to be is how you can treat him. And that has screwed up the deal for everybody in the country.”
With a furrowed brow, he takes a long look at the expanse of land south of the fence. To the untrained eye, both sides appear identical — sparsely populated, serene, picturesque. But Craig’s singular vision perceives that subtle branding that separates north from south. Craig’s American dream ends at that wall. It butts up against it and goes no further. The dream that some semblance of decency and goodwill should circulate among the common psyche, the dream that young men and women should be allowed to grow up in a safe society ruled by temperance and reason, the dream that hard work is rewarded with fair pay and everyone who exerts an effort gets what he needs to pursue his happiness — this dream belongs to us, Craig knows, provided we are willing to claim it as our own.
“I don’t wish recession upon the American economy,” he says finally, “but I’ve had a wonderful time all my life, and I’ve seen a lot of drunks. Throwing them in some cold water is good for them. This may be the sobering moment America needs to come to its senses.”
With the recession, Craig has observed a marked difference in the demographics of illegal border crossers. As recently as a year ago, it was common to see large groups being led by coyotes, professional guides. Illegal immigrants pay as much as $4000 each for a coyote’s services. Most crossers seek employment in the United States because they don’t have much money in the first place. In fact, an April 2006 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group, found that minimum wages in the United States are about ten times higher than in Mexico. Families in Mexico are often held as collateral until the coyote’s fee is paid. As a result, illegal immigrants effectively become indentured servants to their guides.
“Every once in a while,” Craig relates, “you’ll hear stories about families getting snuffed because of that.”
Now, as work becomes difficult to find and maintain even for native-born American citizens, the risk of crossing is too high. Craig sees few groups of potential workers crossing these days. Instead, he sees an increased number of mules, single crossers carrying large packs stuffed with drugs.
Craig relates an incident involving two Mexican men who wandered into the Minutemen camp one evening. They looked anxious but not afraid. They were given chairs, coats, and cans of soda as they waited for the Border Patrol to arrive. Eventually, they were taken away, and the Minutemen considered it a job well done. Later, the Border Patrol told the Minutemen that the men’s shoulders had blistered red spots where their heavy packs had been.
“They were tired, and they didn’t want to walk back to where they came from,” says Craig, “so they turned themselves in to get a meal and a shower, see if there were any girls in the holding pens, and get a free bus ride back into Mexico.”
In fact, the border fence was never intended to keep out foot traffic. Put up in the early ’90s, the fence was meant to act as a vehicle barrier. But that didn’t deter the men whom Craig once watched remove a section with an oxyacetylene torch and drive their pickup across the border with 900 pounds of marijuana.
“Drugs are still selling pretty well, apparently,” Craig says.
The sentiment is echoed by Mike Streenan, owner of the Potrero General Store, located ten miles west of Campo. “I haven’t seen an illegal in probably three months,” he says. “All you have anymore is the cartels moving the drugs.”
Streenan moved to Potrero six years ago. In search of a simpler life, he found the actualization of his dream in what he calls “the greatest place on earth.” Potrero circa 2004 was a haven of sorts, set apart from the bustle of the city, a place where nobody worried about things like crime, seat belts, or expired vehicle registrations. The town of roughly 900 inhabitants was quiet and self-contained. Everyone minded his own business.
Then in the fall of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security granted the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department $5.5 million for the purposes of “reducing border-related crimes and helping secure our borders by a strong, visible, proactive presence in local communities impacted by the border.” The result was that five new sheriffs began patrolling Potrero and, Streenan says, doing little more than harassing locals for petty violations.
“They have to get money because this state is broke,” he says. “The one cop we used to have didn’t really write tickets because he dealt more with domestic disputes. Now the cops are constantly on the road pulling cars over all over the place.”
Similarly, the Border Patrol has done its share to spoil the ambience of East County by causing delays, interrogating locals, and intimidating passersby who are obviously American citizens at a Highway 94 checkpoint east of Jamul. The arrangement has transformed Streenan’s backcountry paradise into what he describes as a “maximum-security prison.”
“When they ask where I’m coming from, I tell them, ‘I’m coming from heaven and going to hell,’ because I’m going to the city,” Streenan says with a grin. “They’re only supposed to ask about citizenship. But they ask very irritating things like we’re in prison now.”
To exacerbate the situation, the prevalence of drug runners in the area has created a climate of mortal fear among locals. Rumors of corruption within the ranks of the Border Patrol have made many locals hesitant to report suspicious activities, lest they attract the attention of the Mexican cartels.
“[The authorities] can get paid off and come through here and shoot me down,” Streenan says. “I’m out here in the public. I don’t want to get killed. So you just don’t tell anybody anything. You don’t want to get blown away. Tell the wrong person, and you’re going to die.”
Streenan says he started noticing fewer illegal immigrants in his store and using the pay phone out front about eight months ago. “There’s no reason for them to come anymore,” he says. “There’s no work, just the drugs. And that’s dangerous.”
He puts the burden of responsibility on lawmakers, saying it’s the demand for Mexican drugs that allows the situation to exist. “They need to legalize it or do something to end this,” he says. “It’s not like they’re all smoking weed down there in Mexico.”
Many locals blame illegal immigrants for starting the 2007 Harris fire, which ignited just outside town and destroyed half the trailer park as well as several houses. The trailer park used to be full of tourists who would stay for a day or two before heading down to places like Mulegé or Loreto, in Baja California Sur. But tourists have been scared away from Mexico by the violence, Streenan laments, which means a gap in his annual income.
“Business is down probably about 42 percent a day,” he says. “I mean, everything is just gone.”
According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California released in June 2008, California was home to approximately 2.8 million undocumented immigrants in 2006. While acknowledging that the figures can only be estimated, the report states that a quarter of the nation’s illegal immigrant population resides in California, making up 8 percent of the state’s population. However, illegal immigration is on the decline in the state, increasing by roughly 50,000 per year at the time the report was written compared to 100,000 per year in the 1990s. About 1 in 11 workers in California is an illegal immigrant.
“Two-thirds of California adults think that illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for work permits that would let them stay and work in the United States,” says the report. Seventy-two percent of Californians believe that “most illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least two years should be given a chance to keep their jobs and apply for legal status.” Only 25 percent would like to see them deported.
Reflecting the observations of Craig and Streenan, the institute’s April 2006 reports says, “When our economy is strong, illegal immigration increases. Inflows declined with the downturn of the U.S. economy in the early 2000s.”
However, challenging the oft-cited argument that undocumented laborers lower the working wage for everybody in a given industry, the 2006 report finds that illegal immigrants “have little effect on the wages and employment of U.S.-born workers. Such effects are felt most by low-skilled U.S. workers,” to the tune of about a 4 percent decrease in lifelong earnings for men without a high school diploma.
Ironically, increasing border security, the report finds, increases the number of illegal immigrants residing in the United States. As the border becomes more difficult to cross, many cyclical crossers are staying in the United States for longer periods of time, if not permanently.
But illegal immigration is only part of the problem. According to some, the U.S. immigration system is flawed to the point of crippling the economy.
For the past 25 years, Steve Scaroni has run a lettuce and leafy greens farming operation out of Heber, a town in the Imperial Valley. Ninety-nine percent of his 1000 or so employees are people born outside the United States. Nonimmigrants, Scaroni says, simply will not do farmwork.
“American nonimmigrants don’t raise their children to be farmworkers. Farmworkers don’t raise their children to be farmworkers.”
Scaroni estimates that 60 percent of his employees are documented immigrants. Forty percent are nonimmigrant foreign workers. An H-2A visa allows foreign nationals to work in the United States for a predetermined length of time. Costly, time-consuming, and process-intensive, according to Scaroni, the H-2A application procedure is “the process from hell.” He tolerates it, however, because it is the only way he can staff his operation. “There are simply not enough legal workers in the country to do the work that needs to get done,” he says.
Four years ago, fed up with the bureaucratic shuffle of H-2As, it was Scaroni who hopped the fence. He opened a sister farm in Guanajuato, Mexico, where his workforce costs a quarter of what it does in this country. After shipping and charges imposed by Mexico, his costs are on a par with his U.S. costs, but across the border he has no problem finding workers who are dependable, motivated, and legal. Scaroni is baffled by the absurdity of having to outsource his business to another country, calling the current U.S. policies “asinine.”
“U.S.-consumed vegetables and farm products will be produced by [foreign laborers],” Scaroni says. “The question for the U.S. is, will they be [foreign laborers] working in the U.S. on U.S. farms or [foreign laborers] producing U.S.-consumed vegetables in Mexico and third-world countries.”
Scaroni points the finger at policymakers who, he believes, fail to recognize the need for legal foreign labor in the United States.
“I’m as conservative as they come,” Scaroni says, “but I blame a lot of it on the Republican dinosaurs like Duncan Hunter who don’t understand the reality of today’s workforce, production agriculture, or the dysfunction of our immigration system.”
Scaroni says he won’t be pushing any further growth in his U.S. operation until foreign-worker policies improve.
“The only way we are going to keep agriculture, especially vegetable production, viable in the U.S. is to have a practical guest-worker program to bring [foreign laborers] in legally,” Scaroni says. “We are not making new farmworkers in the U.S. People simply won’t do it.”
Money, Scaroni says, is not the issue. He could pay double the wage he offers in the United States and still come up shorthanded. “We’re not going to get the crops harvested and the farms farmed without imported legal [foreign laborers],” Scaroni stresses. “We need to compete globally. People need to get realistic about what it is they want.”
Back in the hills of Campo, beneath the crackling of high-tension power lines, the buzz of Border Patrol quads in the distance, Britt “Kingfish” Craig — the ultimate frontier, the last vanguard of the dream — nods to the setting sun in concurrence. “Give everybody a work permit, and let them leave when the permit expires,” he says. “That’s fine with me.”