Aug. 8 2012 11:55 AM

Although ranch owners working near the border desire a long-term solution, a fence is their only request.

by Lucas Sjostrom, Hoard's Dairyman Associate Editor

Immigration reform is an ongoing national debate. Those of us involved in the paperwork and potential legal harassment associated with finding capable, willing and possibly foreign workers have considered the alternatives to our current convoluted system. It isn't an easy answer.

The debate is a linear argument, with polar opposites found at each end of the line. The fact is that some people are in the U.S. illegally. Many of them don't commit crimes beyond their initial illegal entry or staying beyond their initial travel or work visa. However, every second someone is in the country after breaking that initial law, they're still breaking the law.

One side argues for amnesty. But "amnesty" means different things to different people. Amnesty at its base means allowing everyone who is here to stay here. It could mean everyone under a certain age, as President Obama has proposed. Once amnesty is given to all or part of the group, the status of this group must be determined. Are they a different status than those who've legally received their green cards? Do they need to pay a penalty?

The other train of thought is more strictly enforcing current laws on the books. This means some degree of finding, then deporting, illegal immigrants. Some states are pushing this further by giving law enforcement personnel additional orders to check immigration statuses of anyone who may not have citizenship.

But those working at the border don't care about any of this. They want a fence, and they wanted it 10 years ago. At the Agriculture Media Summit this week in Albuquerque, N.M., Southwestern ranchers and officials laid out their case for the fence.

Panel member Dan Bell of Nogales, Ariz., is fighting for a better fence every day. He ranches on 50,000 acres of ranchland, including 10 linear miles attached to the U.S.-Mexico border. As more fence line and security arrives in the high-traffic and urban centers, illegal immigration and drug smuggling is funneled through ranches like Bell's. He estimated that for every $100 of beef he sells, his costs are $15 higher than ranchers not dealing with similar issues.

Bell noted that 20 percent of those apprehended at the border already have a criminal record. Ranches like his experience wildfires as result of campfires left behind by those crossing the border and cut fences. But the biggest loss is death of border patrol, employees and cattle as result of those crossing the border.

As I pressed Bell and the other panelists for solutions after that fence was up, should it arrive some day, everyone balked with an answer. The unanimous decision, for those on both sides of the debate, is that we need a fence.