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SB 1070 raises tensions in rural Texas

Hudspeth County, Arizona?

Jim Ed Miller is running for king. If elected, he will first outlaw the penny. "We'll round off to a nickel," he cracks. Next, and more seriously, he would legalize drugs and order every available U.S. Border Patrol agent to secure the banks of the Rio Grande.

As this Hudspeth County, Tex., cotton farmer sees it, that's the solution to stopping the violence in Mexico and keeping illegal immigration at bay. "The issue is, get the federal government to do what they're supposed to do: defend our shores and carry our mail, and otherwise get the hell out of the way," he says.

A self-proclaimed "smart-ass," Miller is an elected member of rural Hudspeth County's court of commissioners. Given that the king position isn't exactly open, he did something else he hopes will get his point across: sponsored a resolution that the commissioner's court passed this month supporting Arizona's new immigration law. Officials in big cities across Texas — El Paso, Austin, San Antonio — lambasted Arizona's move to crackdown on illegal immigration, and some even passed measures to boycott products from there.

Here in Hudspeth County, where immigration issues are the stuff of daily life rather than political rhetoric, about 3,000 residents live just across the border from one of the most murderous regions of Mexico. The commissioner's court and many local residents say they understand Arizona's frustration.

Yet others here yearn for the idyllic old days, when they regularly crossed the border to see family members, to play against local Mexican baseball teams or to party in the plaza. And they worry that racial tension is destroying a binational culture they've cherished for generations. "All it has done is raise some serious concerns," says Wayne West, the one county commissioner who voted against the Arizona resolution.

All Miller wants is for the federal government to cowboy up — to do its job and stop Mexican immigrants from crossing the border illegally, he says. From his perspective, the Arizona law simply allows state and local law enforcement to do the job that the federal government has abdicated.

The Arizona bill touched off a national firestorm when Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law in April. It requires police there to enforce immigration laws that are typically the purview of the feds. It also established new immigration-related crimes, including trespassing by illegal immigrants, stopping to hire or soliciting work in specific circumstances, and transporting, harboring or concealing undocumented immigrants.

Supporters of the law say it's needed because the federal government has failed to secure the border. Opponents say it smacks of racism and worry it condones racial profiling.

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When the city council and county commissioners in El Paso — just about 60 miles west of Hudspeth County — brought up resolutions denouncing Arizona, Miller got ticked off. "Now what the hell is wrong with upholding the law?" he asks. He wants the folks in Arizona to know that not everybody thinks the new immigration law they passed is such a bad deal. His one-sentence resolution passed with a vote of 2-1.

Miller says he knows not everybody in Hudspeth County — where the population is more than 75 percent Hispanic, according to the most recent U.S. Census data available — approves of the resolution. One resident even told Miller that the move could cost him another term in office. "Facts are negotiable, but perceptions are rock solid," Miller says with characteristic sarcasm. "For those who perceive discrimination, you just got to walk on, 'cause the facts are not going to change anything."

Hudspeth County Judge Becky Dean Walker, who leads the commissioners, didn't vote on the measure but supported it. All that the county did, she says, was to send the message that Arizona officials have a right to do what they feel they need to do for their state.

Walker says the arguments about racial profiling in Hudspeth County just don't hold water. Law enforcement — and there's a lot of it around here, with growing patrols by Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the local sheriffs deputies and a host of federal agents — stop everybody, even her, Walker says.

She's about as Anglo as they come, with white-blonde hair, ice-blue eyes and light skin gently weathered from years working on a ranch under the harsh desert sun. "They ask me if I'm a citizen," she says of Border Patrol agents.

Still, it saddens her that the issue divides the community where she's lived for decades. "People give me the brush-off now," she says. "They consider me the enemy."

Commissioner West, whose brother Arvin West is the Hudspeth County Sheriff, grew up in this rural desert region. He's half Hispanic. He worries that if local law enforcement are given the responsibility to enforce immigration laws, they will start targeting Hispanics. "I know a lot of kinfolks as well as real noble citizens of the state of Texas … and we damn sure don't need some local sheriff's deputy or highway patrolman stopping them and asking them what's their citizenship," he says. "That is nothing but pure harassment."

What West finds most galling about the Arizona law, though, is that it requires state and local governments to foot the bill for a task taxpayers are already paying the federal government to do. "I just find it totally ludicrous for us to have to get out there and do their jobs," he says.

Bill Addington and his family have lived in Hudspeth County for generations. There's a tiny footbridge on their farm that connects their property to Mexico. Recently, he says, he and other local ranchers have provided food to Mexicans fleeing the brutal killings and daily threats from drug cartels and their minions. Out here in this isolated, rural territory families on both sides of the border have cultivated strong ties, he says. "The people in Hudspeth County don't support that resolution," Addington says. "Maybe some do, but most don't."

Voting to support the Arizona immigration law could come back to haunt the local politicians, Addington says. "I think it is a mistake," he says, adding that, come election time, he and his neighbors won't likely forget the resolution or the commissioners who supported it.

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Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Texas Tribune

A driver from Chihuahua, Mexico waits to cross the border into Fort Hancock in rural Hudspeth County. County commissioners here passed a resolution this month supporting Arizona's new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.