Tim Foley doesn’t get lonely living by himself in the mountains Arivaca, Arizona.
“I’m good, I’ve got my dog,” Foley said. “And all I’ve got to do is head out to the mountains to find some people.”
It’s been 7 years since Foley decided to journey through the winding backroads of the Arizona desert into a small trailer near the southern border, after losing his job in construction during the Great Recession.
There he founded Arizona Border Recon, a group consisting of mostly former military and law enforcement, which lurks around the cactus-covered, wilderness with security cameras and firearms.
Foley’s crew of nearly 300 travels every other month, in squads of 20, looking for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers to detain and handover to U.S. Border Patrol.
Foley said he came to Arivaca to prove that Americans have been fed two lies: “That immigrants are hardworking people who want jobs Americans don’t,” and that the border is “safe and secure.”
Foley is just one of many Arizonans divided over the issue of immigration.
As the American population diversifies, and President Donald Trump’s administration takes a hard stance on border security, some citizens blame immigrants for the country’s struggles to find economic prosperity in the new global economy and of supplying the country with illicit drugs.
Data shows that the burst illegal immigration from Mexico happened only three decades ago. It’s been argued that subsequent trade deals and stricter policies have only exacerbated the problem.
In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. Proponents of the doctrine thought the removal of tariffs would increase economic growth amongst Mexico, the United States and Canada.
However, according to a report by Robert A. Blecker, an economist at American University, Mexican manufacturing jobs disappeared and wages plummeted in the wake of NAFTA.
Pew Research Center has found that the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States more than doubled between the signing of NAFTA and the beginning of the Great Recession.
Chris Fleischman assists these migrants as they enter the country.
A volunteer for the organization No More Deaths, Fleischman leaves water and supplies in Ajo, Arizona, where migrants travel through as they cross the border.
He said they often find human remains in the desert.
While Foley considers No More Deaths’ counterintuitive to border safety, he agrees with Fleischman that NAFTA led to more criminal activity along the border.
“Before NAFTA there weren’t migrants showing up in the desert dying,” Fleischman said. “After NAFTA, boom, hundreds every year.”
But that’s where the agreements end. The two see the border completely differently.
To Fleischman, it’s a militarized wasteland, heavily armed in a futile effort to curb drug trafficking.
To Foley, it’s an ignored string of alleyways and backchannels, a dope mule’s paradise.
Foley said law enforcement agencies aren’t doing enough and that 85 percent of the border crossers he encounters in the field are drug smugglers. “There are no women and children out here,” he said.
A 2010 report by the Department of Homeland Security shows the complete opposite. Only 5 percent of “immigration charges” are drug-related.
But Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Strada thinks he knows how Foley arrived at that number. Strada has been working in southern Arizona for almost 20 years. He said heightened border security causes migrants to turn to the cartel to help get them across.
The price: moving product.
“It used to be that people could come across the border and no one would bother them,” Strada said. “When they decided putting pressure along the border with the border wall, the fence, the sensors, the agents and everything else the cartels said ‘hey, this is another opportunity for us, we’re going in on smuggling humans,’”
The cartels reportedly earn $30 billion a year in smuggling drugs to the U.S.
U.S. consumers’ appetite for illicit drugs is what is fueling this crisis. The U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for a quarter of the world’s drug consumption.
In an effort to control the flow of drugs and crime, the Arizona Legislature passed Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, granting local law enforcement full authority to demand the papers of people suspected of being in this country illegally.
Bill Richardson is a retired police officer who worked in Mesa, Arizona, fighting drug crimes. He said that SB 1070 alienated the estimated 325,000 undocumented immigrants in Arizona and made the state less safe from drugs and criminals.
“If you’re attacked, and you’re here, and you are undocumented and fear the police, you may never make an official report,” Richardson said. “If local law enforcement can’t partner with immigration, we’ll never get rid of the criminal aliens who prey on the undocumented.”
Perla Martinez feels exactly what Richardson is talking about.
A Deferred Action for Child Arrivals recipient at Arizona State University, Martinez fears that contacting the authorities, for any reason, could result in her family’s deportation.
She has lived in Arizona since she crossed the Mexican border when she was 5 years old.
Martinez doesn’t remember much about her journey to the United States, other than that she came with her brother and mom to meet her dad, in search of better opportunities and education. She doesn’t know how much time she has left in the place she’s called home almost her entire life.
“DACA recipients have been losing their permits daily,” Martinez said. “Every day we’re thankful that we’re here. There’s always that little anxiety that we have.”
Richardson believes former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other immigration hardliners have used fear to create a racial divide by painting people like Martinez and her family as dangerous.
“The public wants a pound of flesh, they want revenge, they want to get even” Richardson said. “What frightened me is that I know people… they all the sudden had an idea that their home was going to be invaded by illegal immigrants, and they were going to get killed.”
But Foley, nicknamed “The Nailer,” a play on his work in construction, rejects the notion that the work of Arizona Border Recon has anything to do with race.
“Everybody equates us as racists, this has nothing to do with race,” Foley said. “It’s about sustainability. How many people can we sustain that aren’t paying taxes, that are looking for government assistance?”
Some proponents of immigration reform believe the issue has more to do with economics than race.
Angela Banks is a law professor, studying immigration and citizenship. Her research shows that illegal immigrants pay their share of state and local taxes, and the cheap labor that migrants like Martinez’s father, a landscaper, provide is vital to U.S. businesses.
“Companies and industries will say that if they don’t have access to these workers they will have to go overseas,” Banks said. “That they just can’t operate in the United States without these workers.”
However, According to the American Policy Institute, American wages have only seen a tiny increase over the last 40 years.
Though there are many reasons for this trend, the election of Donald Trump stoked the anxieties felt from stagnant wages, and according to Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, gave rise to groups who blame immigrants for America’s economic downturn.
Groups that many Americans thought no longer existed.
Among them is Identity Evropa, a nationalist group aiming to preserve Anglo-Protestant heritage in America.
Identity Evropa travels across the country, including to ASU, recruiting college-aged men and women and blue-collar workers to join them.
When Trump launched his campaign, the organization consisted of only a few members. Now, according to spokesman Elliot Martin, they’re over 1,000 strong, and have participated in significant racial protests, including the now infamous United the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Martin said the United States has incentivized immigration and displaced European Americans in the process.
“We want the Trump administration to enact some of the policies that candidate Trump campaigned on and energized the broader, global movement with,” Martin said. “Why should we want to become minorities and strangers in our own communities?”
The demographics of America have shifted over the past 50 years. When the Immigration Act of 1965 passed, only 4 percent of the American population was foreign born. Now, 60 million immigrants later, that number has grown to 15 percent, according to Pew, a key part of Identity Evropa’s frustration.
The group’s endgame is an “ethno-culturist party,” which would advocate policies that are favorable to white Americans.
Not only are groups like Identiy Evropa on the rise, but according to the FBI, so are ethnicity-related hate crimes.
Martinez, a freshmen studying computer science, notices a darker tone some have taken toward immigrants, but the increasing number of Americans taking a stand against hate encourages her.
“People are starting to become more informed about undocumented immigrants,” Martinez said. “I’ve seen people who are really soft-spoken about these issues becoming more vocal.”
These are politically divisive times for America. Pew found that the proportion of Americans holding consistently partisan views has doubled since 1994.
In the midst of this polarization are a wide variety of proposed solutions to the country’s problems, including immigration.
Identity Evropa and some Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. David Perdue who introduced the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act in February, want to reduce the number of people moving to America. However, Foley makes a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants.
“I’m not totally for just rounding up everybody and anybody and just throwing them all back.” Foley Said. “But we have people who are already waiting in line to get their citizenship… and they’re the ones who are most pissed about all this.”
However, many Americas aren’t aware of how complicated the process of legal immigration can be.
Even Foley, who has dedicated his life to hiding in the mountains, sneaking up on border crossers, boils as he recalls his unsuccessful effort to help his Canadian ex-wife gain American citizenship.
Martinez’s parents, unskilled laborers, told her applying for citizenship wasn’t an option when they entered the United States.
“I’m from Mexico City.” Martinez said. “Apparently it’s really difficult for people from the southern part of Mexico to qualify for a visa.”
She also said that there is currently no way for her family to go through the process of applying for citizenship without being deported.
Finding a solution for a contentious, manifold issue like immigration can be complicated. And Foley doesn’t believe politicians, law enforcement and the media are capable of having that discussion because they haven’t been close enough to the conflict.
He equates his stomping grounds to a warzone, one that America has willingly surrendered to the cartel.
“If you’re at your house looking out in your backyard you can see your fence, you know if anybody is coming over your fence,” Foley said. “But when you get in your car and go to Walmart, you don’t know who is coming over your fence. If we don’t have people down here, we’re not going to win this war.”