Border family's strange encounters with illegal crossers

The Garners' world includes security drills, self-defense lessons, and a gun on the hip for mom

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Garner family on Purdy Lane doesn't know exactly how many chickens, roosters, Guinea hens, or geese they own on their 5-acre farm in this dusty town on the US-Mexico border.

But they know the number is smaller than the number of illegal immigrants who can be seen daily in groups of three, 10, 40, 60, and more on their property. They are often huddled in centipede form (hands on the hips of the person in front), kneeling under windows, crouched behind trees, and sleeping in their egg house.

Mr. Garner, a carpenter, his wife, and three daughters (age 10, 12, and 15) tell countless stories that are as alarming to outsiders as they are matter-of-fact to them. Theirs is a life dominated by self-defense lessons, family practice drills to huddle in the master bedroom, obligatory two-way radios for kids who walk to school, and a handgun on the hip for mom.

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Although violent encounters are relatively rare, their stories tell a narrative of how surreal - and spooky - life can be for families that straddle the 1,400-mile Maginot Line known as the US-Mexican border.

"You'll be weeding in your garden and turn around to see 20 of them standing in front of you, demanding water and food," says Dawn Garner, the mother.

"I come out to go to school, and they are changing their clothes under my bedroom window," says daughter Shayne.

"They leave backpacks filled with drugs on the lawn," says sister Ciara. "It's scary and creepy."

Despite increasingly harsh crackdowns over the years by the US Border Patrol (both pre- and post-911), the presence of illegal immigrants is also a growing phenomenon, says Ms. Garner, who grew up here in Naco, population 7,000. And it is more dangerous and pernicious, she says, with a growing number of people of different nationalities coming across the border, including from the Middle East, India, and Afghanistan.

The evidence of that comes in Islamic prayer rugs found in the desert dust, Arabic literature left by still-warm campfires, and Afghani head garb caught on cactus quills. The FBI also recently found a drug tunnel beneath the bedroom of a schoolmate of one of the Garner girls, with $250,000 cash hidden inside.

"The diversity of those who are coming across has grown and their desperation has definitely heightened," she says. "Years ago, they would politely ask you for water outside. Now you come home and someone is in your house, eating your food, trashing your bedroom, stealing your stuff, and leaving garbage everywhere."

Stories like those of the Garners are being corroborated from San Diego to Houston this week as the high-profile citizen's effort known as the Minutemen Project unfolds across a 20-40 mile section of the border here. A woman who lives in Laredo, Texas, tells of being choked in her own bedroom and being yanked off her horses. A San Diego couple complains of fields strewn with plastic bottles and human excrement.

But the most intense scrutiny is coming, here south of Tucson, where last year agents apprehended 500,000 migrants, catching - they say - only one in three who attempt to cross. By placing citizen volunteers at outposts 300 yards apart, the minuteman group is hoping to prove a point: that the influx of illegal immigrants could be slowed, if not stopped, at even the border's most porous sections if the Border Patrol could carry out similar saturation patrolling.

An encounter at the fix-it shop

Days into the project, the Garners and other neighbors say the idea is working, even though people on both sides of the border know the experiment is only temporary.

"Everyone here welcomes the Minutemen," says mechanic Dylan Cron, who fixes cars in a metallic Quonset hut about a mile from the Garner farm. "The illegal phenomenon is not just changing the nature of this little town. The people who pass through here are headed to New York, Chicago ... all over the US."

A few weeks ago, Mr. Cron says a desperate man walked up to him while he was fixing a car, and offered to buy it on the spot for $5,000 cash. Mr. Cron pointed to a tower of video cameras placed about 100 yards away by the Border Patrol.

"It's pretty clear he wanted it to help move a bunch of illegal immigrants inland, but when he saw the cameras, he suddenly thanked me and hurried off," says Cron, who lauds the minutemen for bringing attention to the understaffed and underfunded Border Patrol.

"I call them two to three times a week to report groups of illegal immigrants coming across my property in groups of 10 to 20," says Cron. "They say they are busy grabbing bigger groups of 40 to 60."

Watching from his fix-it shop or bedroom window, Cron says he has identified the modus operandi of groups big and small. Usually, they are directed by three helpers, one holding a cell phone or two-way radio on higher ground, a second leading groups through the low-lying water gully behind his home, and a third on nearby streets or highways coordinating mobile pick-ups to spirit immigrants inland.

"What makes it most disturbing now is that you can't leave a window open in summer, or leave anything unlocked at night anywhere," says Cron. He recently put bars on his windows because he found a group of illegal immigrants sleeping just inside his shop after breaking in through the glass window.

For her own piece of mind, Mrs. Garner - a stay-at-home mother who also teaches pilates and aerobic kickboxing - signed her three daughters up for an Israeli-army self-defense course. It teaches how to defend yourself without weapons. Shayne, who speaks Spanish, says the migrants do not respond to her attempts to communicate in any language, coached as they are by professional coyotes, who smuggle people across the border, to say nothing.

Handbook on crossing border

She translates aloud from a paper handbook that she found in an abandoned backpack, published by a Mexican group that aids people on the other side of a waist high barbed-wire fence that separates the two countries. The book explains why not to bribe American officials, what terrain to avoid, and spells out what the Border Patrol is obligated to do upon catching illegal immigrants.

"Whenever you go to America, they are required to give you emergency medical attention," says Shayne, translating from Spanish. "The authorities are obligated to give you basic services of hygiene, and they have to help you if you are sick."

Her mother says booklets like this show what residents on the US of the border are up against.

"It's invasive. It's a lifestyle we live and can't ever forget about every day," she says.

Living briefly in Wyoming and Alaska has given her the only perspective that life in the rest of America is not like the life she leads. "I'm thinking that if we don't take the time and effort to stop this here, we are going to see more and more of it elsewhere," she says. "Now, with the added element of terrorism threats, we'd better rethink our resolve on this issue."

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