There is no crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, apprehensions of illegal crossings have plummeted over the last two decades, from 1.6 million in 1999 to just 400,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. It is true that an increasing number of families are fleeing civil strife in Central America and seeking safe harbor here, as they have the legal right to do. For their efforts, they are being separated, detained, pushed into self-deportation and otherwise harassed in what is becoming one of the darker periods of U.S. history.
Most troubling on the border, though, is the presence of militias. Fueled by the xenophobic rhetoric of our president, these groups of armed men and women believe they are doing the country a favor by “assisting” the Border Patrol. One group in New Mexico, the United Constitutional Patriots, recently changed its name and moved to an undisclosed camp, after its armed members were accused of holding a group of border-crossers against their will — an act otherwise known as kidnapping. This kind of vigilantism plagued the lawless American West throughout the 19th century. Today, it represents an intricate fantasy world that is both sad and dangerous, as fake soldiers with real weapons threaten the safety of actual civilians fleeing actual violence.
Luckily, common sense can and sometimes does prevail. As this issue’s cover story shows, Citizens along the border are getting fed up with the ongoing antics of militias. In one town, Arivaca, Arizona, a coalition of residents has come together to resist, refuse and otherwise retaliate against militia activity. Writer Tay Wiles, who follows extremism throughout the West, assembles an intimate portrait of the town and the impacts that militia and violence have had there over the years. There, militia members are banned from some establishments, and residents have put plans in place to protect each other if these armed interlopers carry out any of the (mostly) hollow threats they have made against the town. As one resident tells Wiles: “We need to take a stand.”
We should all learn from Arivaca, where neighborliness and decency have risen above national politics and provocation. In today’s political climate, it is becoming all too tempting to bar the door, turn down the lights, and tweet from the safety of the couch. I would encourage everybody who truly cares about the West to take their own stand, wherever they may be. The region is facing many challenges, but every hand helps. If a militia has moved into town, ban it. If a racist makes a snide comment, confront him. If a colleague claims that climate change is a hoax, correct her. We can all act together on behalf of the American West, and right now that means standing against ignorance, racism and intolerance, in any form, whether it comes from the border, the White House or the house next door.
Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News.