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Retiring on Immigration's Front Lines

David Maxon

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U.S.-Mexican border in Nogales, Ariz.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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When it comes time to retire, Americans tend to migrate south for the year-round sunshine. That's the reason thousands of retirees fill Green Valley, Ariz., very near the U.S.-Mexico border. But in recent years, the sleepy community has had a rude awakening. Reporter David Maxon reports that wayward golf balls are no longer the worst hazard in Green Valley:

My late grandfather had a vision for an idyllic a retirement community in the Sonoran desert outside Tucson, Ariz., about 40 miles from the Mexican border. He wanted to build an ideal place for people to live out their golden years peacefully -- a warm, dry climate, comfortable ranch-style homes, lots of leisure activities. That's exactly what Green Valley has become. Today there are 20,000 retirees here, and the average age is 72.

"There were six reasons we moved here: Climate, climate, climate and golf, golf, golf," says Claire, a resident who asked not to be identified by her last name. She and her husband Michael moved to Green Valley from Wisconsin about 12 years ago. Michael said it was like a Shangri-la back then.

But not any more. Reality came crashing in, literally, this April -- an SUV carrying eight undocumented migrants, pursued by the Border Patrol, smashed into their home.

"The car ended up 10 inches from my wife's head in the bedroom," Michael says. "It sounded like a sonic boom or a real loud explosion. I said 'What's goin' on?' And my wife said, 'There's a car in my bedroom!' I thought she was having a nightmare or something, but I went in there and there it was."

The truck broke the gas line and an electrical box when it hit -- but by some miracle, there was no explosion. Claire and Michael were unhurt.

This accident is just one example of the unintended consequences of the recent push for border security. As border enforcement has increased in more populated areas nearby, drug smugglers and human traffickers move to more remote places like Green Valley. And so the people here have watched their peaceful retirement community become a thoroughfare for border traffic. Different people react differently to that -- Michael and Claire, justifiably, are afraid.

"We both should have been dead," Michael says. "For a long time any noises at night would stir us up. I'm not a violent man but I told my wife... I'm thinking about getting a pistol and put it in my bedroom. Never had one. Never."

But others react to the influx with indignation, even anger. Former Air Force pilot Don Severe moved to Green Valley three-and-a-half years ago because of his fondness for the desert. "My intent was simply to retire, play golf and do some exploring. I'm an amateur historian and amateur archaeologist."

But while Severe searched for ghost towns and the remnants of abandoned mines, he kept coming across evidence of illegal activity. Out in the desert around Green Valley, he points out the debris left behind in some of the high-traffic areas.

"You will see around here empty bottles, clothing of all types, women's personal hygiene, deodorant, toothbrushes," Severe says. "There's a pair of ladies underwear. All of these bottles, they just drop as they finish. Skin cream, pills of some sort..."

But Severe says it's not just the trash that offends him, but the people who leave it there. "They can be murderers, rapists, pedophiles, petty criminals of all types," he says.

So Severe got involved with the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps -- the pseudo-militia group that seeks to stop illegal immigrants. The Minutemen go into the desert, armed at times, and report what they see to the authorities. For Severe, it's the only sane response.

"Should I have to worry about people from some other country possibly causing danger for myself or my wife? I didn't ask for them to be out there every day, so the Border Patrol is flying the area. And I wake up to the 'womp womp womp' of a helicopter instead of the 'chirp chirp chirp' of the birds," Severe says.

"Believe me, I'd much rather hear the birds. I would like to live in peace and quiet like everybody else. But it doesn't seem to be the way it is right now."

Severe is not the only one taking action. Shura Wallin moved to Green Valley from Berkeley, Calif., eight years ago. When she realized how many migrants were dying nearby, she founded the Green Valley Samaritans.

"Our mission is to save as many lives as we can on this desert," she says. Every week, Wallin goes down to an aid station on the Mexican side of the border, where an estimated 800 migrants a day are dropped off after being caught by the Border Patrol.

Wallin administers first aid to the tired migrants. One of them has lived in the United States for 20 years -- his whole family is citizens... children, grandchildren, even his parents had become citizens. He has no family in Mexico, no one to stay with. He considers himself an American, and he's going to attempt to cross the border again.

Wallin helps them all, even a young man whose shoulders are rubbed raw from hauling marijuana across the border. "I was always taught if someone needed help, you need to help them. You don't ask questions, you help them," she says. "I cannot live here knowing that people are dying in my backyard and not try to do something."

Of course, most people think of retirement as a time when you finally don't have to do something. But this I what it's come to -- senior citizens packing heat, or providing aid for desperate migrants, or even prowling the desert on lookout.

That's something I'm sure neither they nor my grandfather envisioned. But without a comprehensive border policy from Washington, these retirees find themselves on the front line.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Rosario Madrigal



    By Randolph Barfield



    By Grace Burleson



    By Connie Aglione

    From Green Valley, AZ, 06/02/2008

    I live in Green Valley, AZ. I am not afraid of the migrants who just want to move through our community as quickly as possible and with as little notice as possible. I am concerned about the hazards of high-speed car chases initiated by Border Patrol actions and by frightened senior citizens “packing heat”. One local resident accidentally shot himself in the leg at a neighborhood hardware store last week. We need a comprehensive immigration policy that would give a legal path of entry for economic migrants who want only to come here to work. Law enforcement and immigration authorities could then focus their energies where they should, on the much smaller number of serious criminals trying to cross the border. Until then, we need to remember that the immigration “debate” is in fact a humanitarian crisis for many.

    By ED HUNT

    From Green Valley, AZ, 06/02/2008

    I live in Green Valley and I do not live in fear due to immigration issue. I continue to be amused by people who have never seen the topography of the border suggesting it is easy to close it.
    Some might want to check out stories of immigrants being sneaked across the border by Border Patrol agents who are making a lot more than their salaries for such behavior.

    By Geolam Morris

    From Whetstone, 06/02/2008

    That apple likely costs even more than 5 dollars when you factor in school, English language learning, free school meals, higher hospital costs (and bankrupt hospital closures) to provide medical services for illegal aliens, housing subsidies, other welfare services, etc. Document fraud is standard practice. Crooks save money paying substandard wages to illegals, causing the prevailing wages to decline. Citizens are denied even low wage jobs because they don't speak Spanish (or Russian or whatever the illegal aliens speak), and many others have been replaced by those who undercut their wages. Oh yes, some folks really like those cheap gardeners and nannies too. As for myself, I obey ALL the laws. I won't hire anyone who isn't legally entitled to work here. And I truly believe those who do hire illegal labor should be incarcerated, because they really are crooks. No xenophobia/racism, just respect for our laws.

    By Stan Wilson

    From Los Angeles, CA, 06/01/2008

    I think it is obvious that closed border policies and the fears of the so called "psuedo militias" (et al)stems from xenophobic/racist ignorance. I really don't see the jobs that are being 'stolen' by these 'illegals' being filled by the morbidly obese population of 'real' americans who may have difficulty tying their own shoe laces, much less harvesting cabbage etc. This would require getting up from the sofa. Nor do I forsee 'red blooded americans' being content to pay 5 dollars per apple (with most of them rotting on the ground)when all of the 'illegals' have benn shipped 'home'; let us also not forget that the restaurant, and hotel industries would come to a screeching halt. Furthermore, I also wonder why the alarmists, flag waving, defenders of the american (capitalist) way of life are trying to stop the capitalist market forces (for example semi-skilled construction labor force) -- where the duty of the employer is to find the least expensive labor force and pass these savings to the consumer (perhaps a bit of a reductive summary, but you get my angle). However, I do agree that the environmental impact of the trash left on the human trafficking bi-ways is a real problem. Perhaps this can be dealt with,in part, by offering more legal options for crossing the border. I have often heard that the 'illegals' have a huge negative impact upon our GDP, but in my research I found that the facticity of these claims where often unsupported with data. The only scholarly research I found showed a -0.01% impact on gdp -- with a reasonable margin for error, this can also equal 0.

    By Pete Murphy

    From Detroit, MI, 05/31/2008

    Our southern border could easily be closed off and protected, if only our national leaders had the will and the courage. It's time to put an end to this craziness. And it's time to dramatically cut legal immigration as well.

    By elaine walters

    From charlotte, NC, 05/31/2008

    Very interesting story. It must be very difficult to know how to respond to the challenges facing Green Valley and other border towns. We were near the Chiracauha Mountains of Arizona in November and witnessed a border arrest. It was very sad. I feel for both sides.

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