From NogalesInternational.com, “Ariz. and Calif. agricultural leaders examine border issues in SCC” by Hank Stephenson for the Nogales International, 29 Mar 2011.
Capping off a tour from California to Washington D.C., the California Agricultural Leadership Program made its final stop in Nogales last Wednesday, where a local rancher hosted the weary travelers and a panel of experts briefed them on border issues.
The group was finishing off a two-week trip around the country, meeting with lawmakers and stakeholders, talking about immigration and border issues through the lens of the agriculture industry, when they stopped into Dan Bell’s ZZ Ranch for a barbeque of steak, beans and tortillas.
Their counterparts at Arizona Center for Rural Leadership (Project CENTRL) joined them in listening to a panel of local border specialists explain the nature of life along the border, and how it has changed over the decades.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Antonio Estrada; Tom Saucer, deputy director for Santa Cruz County Emergency Management and a former investigations agent with U.S. Customs Service; and Jim Price, a local businessman and member of the Citizens Advisory Board that works with the Border Patrol’s Nogales Station, were the guest speakers at the event.
The three talked about their lives on the border and how the area has changed in recent decades, explained from three different perspectives the dangers and problems inherent in living along the international line, and took questions from the audience on such issues as border security and immigration reform.
“I always tell people Santa Cruz County is safe, it’s secure,” Estrada told the group of about 60 people. “But you can’t seal the border because there are thousands of cars, thousands of people that cross through it every day.”
Estrada spent much of his time reflecting on his 40 years in law enforcement in the area, and recalled the days when his job was simpler.
When he was a rookie, immigration enforcement wasn’t a duty of the sheriff’s office, he said.
As time went on, and the Border Patrol secured the downtown area in Nogales, immigrants have been pushed further outside the city into county domain, and his agency has been forced to bear more of the burden of immigration enforcement and have seen more immigrants dying in the desert.
Despite the deaths in the desert, he said, Nogales, Ariz. and the communities in Santa Cruz County are relatively safe for residents.
“People think we’re dodging bullets every day,” he said. “Nogales is still a lot safer than Tucson or Phoenix.”
Saucer, who started with CBP [Customs and Border Protection] in 1977, talked about the difficulties CBP faces and the changes that the agency has undergone in recent years as they have “beefed up the border.”
Despite billions invested in technology, infrastructure and Border Patrol agents, drug smuggling through Santa Cruz County is still an everyday occurrence, he said.
“Every one of these canyons had trails (back when he started working with CBP), and they still do,” he said, pointing to the hills around Bell’s ranch. “Loads are going to come through these valleys tonight – loads of narcotics and of illegal aliens.”
Price told the crowd that it’s not all drug smuggling and death in the desert, and explained some of the virtues of living on the border.
“Living here is a beautiful thing,” he said. “I brought my children back here to raise them to be bilingual and bicultural.”
After two weeks of talking about border issues, the students of California Agricultural Leadership Program – which, like Project CENTRL, is a two-year agricultural and rural leadership fellowship program – were prepared with some tough questions for the panel members. For example, they asked how to balance the need for unskilled labor from Mexico to pick U.S. crops while making sure that the border is secured.
Members of the program included farmers of everything from olives and avocados to walnuts and wine, and some that were not involved in the farming trade at all, but were rural activists and leaders.
Stuart Mast, owner of Brice Station Winery in Murphys, Calif., said the program has offered him a chance to think about the border and immigration issue more thoroughly, and better understand the complexities tying his northern California town to Southern Arizona towns.
“The problem is we depend so much on unskilled labor, and a lot of those people are illegal immigrants,” he said after listening to the panel. “To secure the border, we need a guest worker program – it’s an issue of supply and demand.”
Rich Burnes, vice-president of California-based Paramount Citrus, said listening to the panel session was like getting three history lessons in one. Through the program and their trip, he has a better understanding of immigration and border security issues and the role played by farmers, even those removed from the actual border, like him.
“It really let me hear a lot of different perspectives,” he said.