A few years back, when Mexicans would stagger out of the desert onto Helen Hoffman's cattle ranch, her family would set up a card table for the parched visitors and give them gallons of water, grub and maybe a few days' work. But not anymore. Every morning now, when her husband Robert checks the cattle on their 500-acre spread near the border at Douglas, Ariz., he sees "heads poppin' up all over in the mesquite bushes," says Helen. Several times, bands of illegal immigrants tried to steal their pick-up and break into the Hoffmans' house under the tall cottonwoods.
A few nights ago, Robert, 84, had settled in front of the TV when he had the prickly sensation that somebody was watching him. He looked up and saw four pairs of eyes staring through the window. It took a while for Robert, who is still recovering from a triple coronary bypass, to fetch the shotgun now kept by the door, and by that time, the prowlers had vanished. Since then, Helen seldom ventures into the yard, even in daylight, without her 9-mm pistol. "I'm no racist. Why, I have a Mexican daughter-in-law," says Helen, 78, a stocky woman with the tenacity of a snapping turtle. "But we have a major invasion happening in this country, and nobody seems to give a damn."
This anger against the growing flood of 1 million illegal immigrants a year is rising fast among independent-spirited, gun-toting residents in the borderlands of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Over the past three years, the number of illegals streaming across the border has remained constant. They come from Mexico, where a third of the people live on $2 a day or less, and from other countries where poverty, national disasters and political upheaval unleash an exodus of refugees. Since the early 1990s, the border patrol has partly sealed the California frontier with its operations "Hold the Line" and "Gatekeeper." But they did not deter the illegal immigrants and their "coyote" smugglers for long. Instead, the crackdown has driven them into the Southwestern deserts, where much of the land adjacent to the unfenced U.S.-Mexican border is privately owned by ranchers and rural residents. It is these people, like the Hoffmans, who are on the front line of the Clinton Administration's losing battle to secure America's southern frontier.
For many Americans who believe citizens have the right to defend their property and privacy with firearms, these ranchers are true patriots, doing a job the government is too weak-kneed to carry out. Ranchers such as Roger Barnett from Douglas, who boasts of capturing illegals on his property--his record is 170 in a day--have become the heroes of anti-immigration activists around the country. Such groups as the American Patrol and the California Coalition for Immigration Reform often liken the ranchers in their literature to the Minutemen of the American Revolution.