PoliticsImmigration48 Hours on the Border


A day on a ranch along the US-Mexico border

Rancher Jim Chilton has lived along the southern border for over 30 years and explains firsthand what life is like amid an ongoing migrant crisis.
Posted at 3:01 PM, Mar 20, 2024

The crisis at the U.S. southern border is a hot-button political issue, but those who live along the border say it’s far more complex than partisan politics.

Jim Chilton and his wife Sue have lived at their ranch in Arivaca, Arizona, since 1991.

“I live here. I know what’s going on,” Jim said.

Their ranch stretches several miles down to the southern border. Chilton let the Scripps News Phoenix crew tag along on a drive across his ranch, eventually reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This is the very southern end of the ranch," Chilton said. "I have 5.5 miles of the international boundary."

A large chunk is covered with fencing installed during the Trump administration. That fencing added on to — and in some places replaced — fencing installed during the Obama administration. The replaced fencing now sits discarded on private land, feet from the new portion of the border wall.

But not all of the land bordering Chilton’s ranch is covered by fencing. In 2020, then-candidate Biden campaigned that he would not build another foot of wall if elected.

“The wall stopped here when Biden took office,” Chilton said, standing at smaller Normandy barriers filling the space. “So where do people go? They come around the end of the wall.”

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About 100 feet from one gap in the wall, Chilton had to fix a makeshift gate. He said he has to repair it about once every two weeks after it’s broken open by people on his property illegally.

“I have found it closed before, but that’s unusual,” Chilton said.

Over the years, their ranch house has been broken into three separate times. Chilton has five cameras on his property — a small sampling of what happens on his vast property. He said the cameras have captured more than 3,000 different images of people crossing his land, many by the cover of night or in camouflage.

“They don’t want to get caught,” Chilton said.

He said border patrol officers told him they suspect at least some of the people crossing his land are bringing drugs. Chilton said he has found drugs on his property in the past.

Chilton said it sickens him to think drugs may be coming across his property into the United States. He and his wife were gutted when one of the cowboys who worked on their ranch was arrested for allegedly helping smuggle drugs.

But there are many other people crossing the border without drugs.

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Warehouse workers move pallets of product imported to the U.S. from Mexico..

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Jaime Chamberlain of Chamberlain Distributing in Nogales, Arizona, said a surge in migrant crossings interferes with efficient cross-border commerce.


“The other group are migrants. Men, women and children," Chilton said. "They come here and they walk down this road to try to be apprehended. There are two different types of people coming across the ranch."

Chilton believes everyone should come across the border legally, but said he sympathizes with those looking for a better life in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security encountered nearly 2.5 million people along the southern border in fiscal year 2023 — encountering more than 300,000 people this past December alone. Chilton believes it’s likely an undercount.

“I haven’t seen any border patrol for 4.5 months,” Chilton said. “They're busy in Tucson processing people that have walked through here and down the road.”

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Political signs are shown.

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Even in portions where a wall does exist, there are gaps. Materials that could be used to fill in those gaps sit nearby, unused.

“If you have a wall with gaps in it, it doesn’t do a lot of good,” Chilton said.

Nearly every time he drives the path parallel with the border wall he sees migrants. Chilton said he was told many of them were dropped at the wall by a cartel that coordinates trips.

In October, the Biden administration begrudgingly greenlit an expansion of the wall in Texas using funds allocated during the Trump administration.

“I hope and pray the next president, I don't care who it is, finishes the wall,” Chilton said.

But for now, there are no plans for new construction here in Arivaca.

This story was originally published by Ford Hatchett at Scripps News Phoenix.