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Roxanne Bell photographs a Double Z ranch foreman who is peering through the steel fence—just feet from where it trails off to twisted strands of often-cut barbed wire.

Roxanne Bell photographs a Double Z ranch foreman who is peering through the steel fence—just feet from where it trails off to twisted strands of often-cut barbed wire.

Jim Black

Dan Bell and the other ranchers who reside along this country’s southern border likely see illegal immigration differently than many of the tree fruit growers and shippers in the North who count on the Mexican labor force, which is estimated to be largely undocumented. But his perspective is that of a cattle rancher who shares many of the same values as tree fruit and grape growers.

It can be a paradise for ranch families who build their lives around the few springs that make the land habitable for humans. But it has its dark side, too.

In addition to the many natural perils facing the Bell family on such isolated, inhospitable land, the Mexican nationals who illegally cross it into the United States present another challenge. Some are coming for work. Some are coming with narcotics. Some seem intent on create chaos through crime. And all risk their lives to make the journey.

Bell estimates that 80 percent of the people crossing his 34,000-acre  Double Z Ranch are illegal immigrants who are only entering the United States to find work and a better life, but he thinks at least 20 ­percent are criminals, with most involved in drug trafficking.

The Bell family recognizes the dangers to themselves, but they also appreciate the issues the trespassers face.

“The last thing we want to see out here is anyone suffering because they can’t get a drink of water,” Bell said, “so we put water faucets on most of our facilities. Coming across a dead body or scattered skeletal remains is something that most folks won’t ever have to deal with, but on the ­border, this is a regular occurrence for ranchers.”

The family even provides water to the people who approach their homes, though they refuse to give transportation. To those who ask, they say that they’ll get them a ride with the Border Patrol—and a desperate few have even taken them up on that offer.

In response to the Bells’ generosity, coyotes—the people who guide many of those coming for work—vandalize homes while passing through the ranch and neighboring properties. Houses with tall, green trees on this fairly barren landscape are a beacon for aliens, said Bell, luring them to home sites that are often miles from any help.

It’s potentially dangerous, but the Bells and the other families who live on the Double Z try not to worry about it much. To date, most of the threats, including deaths, have been directed at the Border Patrol or the unfortunate passerby who happened upon the wrong trespasser at the wrong time. Their thinking is that if they leave the migrants alone and attempt to avoid them when riding on the range, everyone can coexist in relative peace.

That’s not to say that tranquility is a reality on the Double Z. During the nineties, several generations of a single family, from baby to aging grandparents, could be found crossing the ranch from Mexico. Although these families undoubtedly thought the crossing was one of hope for the future, the Bells were angered to see the adults put their children at so much risk. They don’t see these great masses of migrating people anymore, but people still cross—and they’re more desperate, more determined, and more dangerous.

Bell knows the financial impact of illegal immigration, too. Now that the border cities have tall fences and other methods of securing the international boundary, Bell said, more illegals are going across backcountry areas. He estimates that his costs attributed to illegal entry, such as fence repairs and replacing stolen or damaged equipment, amount to about $75 of his per calf expenses.

Recently, intentionally set wildfires have been added to both the dangers and the costs. Drug traffickers and criminals crossing his property have started range fires to either cover their route or to attract attention if they fear starvation and death. Bell said that two-thirds of his 34,000-acre ranch burned in fires between March and June of this year. Two were proven to be set by illegals who were in distress and used them to attract help, two originated in staging camps in Mexico where coyotes were preparing for the crossing, one fire was from an immigrant’s campfire that got away, and two were from unknown sources. They, too, were likely human caused, since they did not occur during the fire season.


One of the worst experiences Bell has faced occurred a few years ago when he and his ranching neighbors from Mexico were reconstructing the barbed wire fence that serves as the actual border demarcation. The materials were delivered via helicopter into one of the most remote sections on the ranch, an area two hours by horseback from the nearest road, then another 45-minute drive to the nearest phone service.

Tucson Sector statistics
Year Number of agents Illegals captured* Narcotics seized**
(in pounds)
2000 1,500+ 616,000 240,000
2007 2,800+ 378,000 816,402
2008 3,300+ 317,000 1,201,649
2009 3,600+ 241,000 1,201,649
2010 3,600+ 212,000 1,030,740
*Every apprehended illegal alien is entered into the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identificaion System to determine any prior immigration and/or criminal history. Over 90% of the aliens apprehended receive some sort of legal consequence for crossing ­illegally.

He and one of his employees were on their way by horseback to retrieve the slings and cables used to transport the supplies, when they came face-to-face with a group of AK-47–toting ­smugglers, who, he assumes, were carrying marijuana into the United States.

“We immediately turned our horses and rode perpendicular from them into the brush,” said Bell. “No words were exchanged and no hostile actions were taken, but when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, your mind and heart start racing. You ask yourself, ‘What direction do I go and what route am I going to take to get back to my vehicle?’ Ever since that incident, I find myself creating a game plan in my mind whenever I go out in the remote areas.”

He also makes sure his route and estimated return time are known by others.

“We fear the unknown,” said Bell. “That became a reality when my friend Rob Krentz was murdered on his ranch on March 27, 2010. We can’t assume that when we come across undocumented aliens that they are merely here to find work. We fear for our families, our employees and their families, and all of our neighbors who ranch along the ­border.”

Members of the International Leadership Alumni toured the Double Z Ranch ­following their annual conference in August. This feature originated with that tour.