The recent arrival of some 700 citizen volunteers on the Arizona border with Mexico has drawn attention to the problem of illegal immigration on the border. While many Americans express sympathy for poor immigrants seeking honest work in this country, many citizens are also angered by the damage immigrant crossers have done to pristine desert areas.
The civilian volunteers, who call themselves Minutemen, have come to watch the border and report illegal crossings to the Border Patrol. They have plenty of critics in Arizona, but along the border they enjoy general support among landowners and residents who blame illegal aliens for a rise in violent crime as well as damage to property and the environment. One local man drove out to greet the Minutemen the other day and thanked them.
"The main reason I am glad these guys are out here is because the bottom line is it is illegal," he said. "That is the bottom line. In the last five years that we have lived here I have seen it triple, in numbers of people coming across. It is illegal to do what they are doing, they are trashing this place."
The trash left by immigrants includes discarded clothing, plastic bottles, food wrappers and plastic bags, which can be seen flapping in the breeze on trees and shrubs all over the desert. Ranchers accuse the immigrants of knocking down fences, breaking water pipes and damaging other infrastructure.
About 300 kilometers to the west of where the Minutemen are staging their month-long border watch, immigrants continue to flow across the border into military reserves, national park land, and an Indian reservation.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Superintendent Kathy Billings says the thousands of immigrants who pass over the border into this federally protected natural area each year have a devastating effect on cactus like the Organ Pipe and Saguaro.
"The undocumented immigrants, when they are laying up during the day to escape the heat, will camp underneath these trees and then there is a lot of soil compaction," said Billings. "They will tear branches off to put more shade around them, thereby destroying the nurse tree that protects the saguaros."
She says the National Park Service, in cooperation with the Border Patrol and other agencies is trying to prevent further damage, but the flow of illegal migrants remains strong.
"There are many areas that are highly impacted by the trails and by the places where the people camp and just leave their trash and human waste," continued Ms. Billings. "There is a spider web of trails through the park that have been created by that illegal activity, but there is still a large part of the monument that is still very pristine."
The illegal border crossers traversing the National Monument include drug smugglers and criminals, too.
In 2002, two fugitives from justice in Mexico killed a Park ranger here. Such incidents have scared some tourists away.
Cross-border criminal activity has also had an impact on the nearby lands of the Tohono O'Odham Indian reservation.
The police chief of the reservation, Richard Saunders, says the environmental damage being done by illegal immigrants distresses his people, who have a great reverence for the land. He says tribal officials have worked in vain to keep their lands clean of the trash left by undocumented immigrants.
"As soon as you clean up an area, there are people coming back through it the next day, discarding trash and articles all over again," said Mr. Saunders. "So, it is a constant battle there."
Police Chief Saunders says the Tohono O'Odham people have always welcomed strangers and tried to help travelers in the desert, but, he says, they cannot cope with the numbers of people coming over the border from Mexico.
"It is a harsh environment out here and so, with that, there is the importance of giving and to assist there. We have always been a giving people," he said. "However, with these large numbers coming through on an annual basis, it is overwhelming to the Tohono O'Odham people."
Immigrant advocates say the blame for this situation rests with the U.S. government for failing to provide workers a safe and legal way to come into the country to do jobs most Americans will not do.
Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network says current policies ignore economic reality.
"We have a false economy in this country that is incredibly dependent on undocumented labor," explained Ms. Allen. "There was just a call put out by the Yuma, Arizona Grower's Association to the Border Patrol to back off at some of their checkpoints in western Arizona because they could not get enough lettuce pickers to come in and harvest the crop."
But many people here say state and local governments are paying the price for the cheap immigrant labor some industries exploit in health care, education, and other social services. Last year, voters in Arizona overwhelmingly approved Proposition 200, which bans state services for illegal residents. There are now 18 more bills before the state legislature that would strengthen that measure.