After the shooting death of a Douglas rancher last year, increased talks of drug cartels becoming more violent, and politicians using a tough stance on illegal immigration to get elected, it’s hard for the average citizen to know what is really happening at the U.S./Mexico border.
In an effort to take politics out of the equation and allow residents to form their own opinion, Tucson’s Gray Line Tours has introduced daylong trips to Nogales. Its second tour took place June 24 when the bus took off around 8:30 a.m. with members of the media, and eight residents from Marana, Tucson and Phoenix on board.
Emmett Smelser, of Marana, heard about the tours on the radio show “Wake Up, Tucson,” hosted by Joe Higgins and Chris DeSimone.
“I just wanted to come down here and get more information,” Smelser said. “You hear a lot from the media and politicians. Being retired from the media, I know we are getting part of the story. All these issues are a lot more complex than we realize. I’m for strong borders, but I believe in compassion for border-crossers.”
DeSimone, who lives in Oro Valley and is employed by Gray Line Tours, said the idea to take a tour to the U.S./Mexico border came after Gray Line started doing a culinary tour in South Tucson and found that many people were uncomfortable with going there alone because they didn’t have knowledge of it.
“They would see that it wasn’t as big of a deal as they thought,” DeSimone said. “As we look at what’s going on politically, the border is always one of the top three to five issues in the nation. I feel like most Tucsonans, Arizonans or Americans haven’t even been there.”
As the bus left Tucson around 8:30 a.m., Bob Feinman, who served as the tour guide, said, “Today, we will see people who live and work there every day, every single day of their lives. All that we ask is at the end of the day you tell people (what you experienced) in your own words based on your own experience.”
Stop one – Water
The first stop in Arivaca, about 30 miles south of Tucson, gave the group insight into how those crossing the border are suffering in the Arizona heat.
Down a steep dirt road, the group walked several hundred feet to a blue flag, which marked a water tank placed by the organization Humane Borders. Through cooperation with the government, the organization places water tanks in some of the high-traffic areas of the desert.
“This can be a lifesaver on a day like today (100 degrees) when you are wondering lost in the desert,” said Feinman. “We’re not here to say it’s good or bad. We are just here to take death out of the immigration equation under the confines of the law.”
Between Yuma and Tucson, Feinman said Humane Borders has placed 50 water tanks throughout the desert. That figure is down from 100 tanks in the past; funding has reduced the inventory by half. Feinman estimated it costs $1,500 a year to maintain each tank.
Even with 50 tanks, Feinman said they save hundreds of lives each year.
“An overwhelming number are crossing with someone they pay to be their guide,” he said. “These guys are certified bad guys. To smugglers you are worth the money you pay. Once you’ve paid, you don’t matter.”
Tucson resident Bill Kapfer said it’s a tough reality to see up close what immigrants are going through, but something still has to be done to protect the border.
“I hate to see anybody die, but if they weren’t talked into coming across in the first place, this wouldn’t be happening,” he said. “They need to shut the border down. It would stop a lot of grief and a lot of politics. I consider this tour an expression of my own self to really see what is going on down here.”
Stop two – Economic blood
In what many participants called the most enlightening part of the tour, the second stop was at the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales. Produce is considered the economic blood of the border area.
To drive that point home, Allison Moore of the association, Bruce Bracker, a third-generation Nogales retailer, and cattle rancher Dan Bell addressed the group. It didn’t take long for all three speakers to agree that the lack of personnel at the U.S. Port of Entry (POE) is causing a problem.
Moore said Nogales is one of the largest ports for produce in the United States, crossing an estimated $2.2 billion per year. The produce ranges from tomatoes and bell peppers to squash, grapes and watermelon.
The problem, in bringing the produce from Mexico to trucks waiting to transport it to U.S. retailers, is time, according to Morrison. Because of a lack of personnel at the POE, it could take a truck hauling produce five hours to cross.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, security at all U.S. ports has increased. But the government has not matched the increased security measures with the manpower, Morrison said.
Pedestrian traffic also has been impacted. It can take an hour or longer for the average resident to walk across the border either into Mexico or the United States.
Bracker said 80 percent of his retail business comes from Northern Mexico, and continued delays to come across is hurting the U.S. economy.
“It used to take five or 10 minutes to walk across the border. Now you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said. “Without the manpower and resources at the border to facilitate the traffic, it hurts the economy.”
Manufacturing also is an important aspect part of the U.S. economy, Bracker said.
“When you manufacture something in Mexico, those dollars stay in our region,” he said. “When you manufacture something in Tawain, those dollars are lost to our economy.”
Moore said there is currently a $200 million investment to expand the DeConcini POE in Nogales; however, without enough personnel to mange the parts that serve as an economic engine, the United States is missing an opportunity.
Stop three – The Fence
After lunch and talks of economics, the tour bus headed for the border, where the construction of the new fence was in full force on the hill east of the POE. Traces of the old fence, which was constructed of metal plating, were still visible.
Feinman explained how the new fence under construction provides better security for both sides of the border because its metal bars allow authorities to see through to the other side.
Stop four – Ranch life
After a short visit at the port and explanation of the fence project, the bus rolled on toward rancher Dan Bell’s property. Bell leases federal land to manage a 35,000-acre cattle ranch. However, due to fires this season, only 25 percent of the ranch is usable.
Bell addressed the issues concerning safety at the border. While the media, Border Patrol and politicians talk about violence and security issues, Bell shared his firsthand information of what’s going on in the world of the border farmer.
Bell said the populated cities such as Nogales are well patrolled and are safe. Instead, the worries can be found on the outskirts of the communities.
“Where we do have the wall, things have improved drastically,” said Bell. “But, if you don’t have anyone patrolling the wall, what good does it do?”
Safety in the rural areas is a major concern, especially for ranchers. Bell said he is hesitant to go out at night after his colleague and friend Robert Krentz was killed at his ranch in Douglas last year.
Bell, a third-generation farmer, said he faces plenty of problems conducting business because of illegal immigration. His fence at the border is cut regularly, causing U.S. cattle to wander south into Mexico, or Mexican cattle to head north into the States.
When that happens, Bell said he has to follow set procedures to get the cattle back to the rightful owners. That means a call to the Border Patrol and U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking any action.
At least three fires – two of which were set by immigrants in distress – were set by illegal immigrants on Bell’s ranch this year.
Bell described a grim situation for the illegal immigrants who are just miles from the border. Some are abandoned by a smuggler and become so disoriented they are in need of water or medical attention. And, just like with the cattle, Bell can’t just give them a ride; he is required by law to call the proper authorities to get them help.
As the bus prepared to head back to Tucson, Smelser said the tour was worth his time because now he has seen border operations up close.
“No matter what side of the issue you are on, this gives you more facts and firsthand knowledge to consider in the future,” he said.
To take the tour
For more information, visit www.graylinearizona.com.