When you try to understand Arizona’s dysfunction—and maybe, God forbid, America’s—you have to start at The Fence and the grand self-delusion that the border could be fortified enough to keep out the invading brown horde. An ugly symbol of a frightened nation, it has fooled no one, except perhaps the politicians in far-off Washington who built it and made it their proxy for immigration reform. But it has barely slowed the Mexicans who’ve climbed over it, dug under it, cut through it, or, as on Heilig’s ranch and elsewhere, simply walked around it. To be sure, the numbers of undocumented border crossers are down, from more than a million a year to a few hundred thousand. It took the Great Recession to stifle the northward migration. The flow of drugs, on the other hand, continues unabated; America’s demand is insatiable and the fence has barely slowed the smugglers.
Now as Washington finally turns to immigration reform, Heilig has no illusion that President Obama’s plan to overhaul the immigration system—or the slate of congressional alternatives—is going to make much difference for the ranchers who live along the border. The key component of the various proposals includes offering a way for some 11 million illegal immigrants to become citizens, which has been the sticking point that stalled reform for decades.
“The big debate will be about what to do with the people living in the United States today,” he says. “But it doesn’t really address the issue of people coming across. I don’t understand why they don’t deal with that.”