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10/12/2005 - Columbus resident doesn't like "illegal immigration racket"

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  • Al Soto
    Rescue mission New Mexican patrolled border for 10 years Louie Gilot El Paso Times COLUMBUS, N.M. -- John Lanning could easily be confused with a Minuteman.
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 12, 2005
      Rescue mission
      New Mexican patrolled border for 10 years

      Louie Gilot
      El Paso Times

      COLUMBUS, N.M. -- John Lanning could easily be confused with a Minuteman.

      Like many of the volunteer patrollers who watch for undocumented immigrants along the border, Lanning carries binoculars and wears a .44-caliber handgun on his hip.

      For about 10 years, this 57-year-old retiree has paced the desert in his beat-up red Ford Bronco, spending hours and sometimes days following footprints in the sand. Just like a lone Minuteman.

      But Lanning resents the comparison.

      The way he sees it, illegal immigration is a "racket" and every side keeps it going -- the smugglers, employers of undocumented immigrants, even the Border Patrol and the Minutemen, whose enforcement efforts jack up smugglers' prices. The victims are the migrants.

      Lanning is not the only border resident to have resorted to unusual ways to cope with living on the front lines of a brutal human trade.

      Some residents have joined the Minutemen. Others want the American Civil Liberties Union to keep an eye on the Minutemen. One Columbus woman, who didn't want to give her name, picks up blankets left behind by migrants, washes them and gives them to local charities.

      They are united by the daily experiences of seeing hundreds of migrants running through ranches and back yards, leaving empty water bottles, trash and sometimes bodies behind.

      This year, apprehensions by the Border Patrol around the village of Columbus, which has a population of less than 2,000, were over 74,000, a 17 percent increase compared with last year.

      Living in the path of unchecked immigration changes people.

      It changed John Lanning one night 10 years ago. Lanning, an Oregon government contractor, had bought a 300-acre farm 25 miles north of the border and retired in Columbus with his wife and teenage son. He didn't know anything about undocumented immigrants, he said.

      Then one night, a Mexican woman and her child knocked at his door.

      "It was pouring rain. We were in the middle of the monsoon. We took them in. She asked to go back to Mexico. We looked in the phone book and found a number for Border Patrol," he recalled.

      These days, Lanning has memorized six different numbers for the Border Patrol and calls often from his cellular phone to report suspicious activity.

      Lanning spends three days a week patrolling the desert, sometimes with his son. He is not naive anymore, but the rage he felt that first night looking into the "wide brown eyes" of helpless migrants is still there.

      "How in the world can anybody allow a human being to be treated like this?" he said.

      Border Patrol officials said they have temporarily reassigned 85 agents to Luna County this year, some coming from other stations in the El Paso sector. There are also 91 recruits going through training at the Border Patrol academy destined for Deming and Columbus this year and next.

      Lanning has been somewhat of a thorn in their side, a regular tipster to the local newspapers and a guide to visiting national media who tells whoever wants to hear it that the Border Patrol's "strategy hasn't worked from day one and will never work."

      He feels the agency should focus more resources on going after smugglers and guides, many of whom live in Columbus, rather than catching and releasing immigrants. Border Patrol officials said they helped prosecute 1,583 smugglers who smuggled 11,429 immigrants in the El Paso sector this year.

      "Mr. Lanning has his own opinions. We try to stay professional with him," said Rick Moody, the Border Patrol agent in charge in Deming, which covers Columbus.

      Moody said the Border Patrol's standard response to civilian patrols like the Minutemen -- that the job is better left to trained officers -- goes for Lanning as well.

      Driving along, Lanning can spot tracks from dozens of feet shuffling under the wire fence on the side of the road. He can tell whether they are fresh from the night before, and whether they belong to men, women or children.

      One day last month, Lanning followed such tracks off the POL Ranch road.

      He walked through snake- infested thickets of mesquite bushes strewn with empty plastic water jugs and sports drink bottles. He picked up a small, clean backpack and opened it -- women's underwear, feminine pads and a Pokemon game.

      Smugglers sometimes force the migrants to abandon their meager possessions if they slow the group down, he said.

      After three hours, Lanning caught up with two stragglers from the group. A teenage boy and an older man. They carried nothing, he said, just their jackets and baseball hats. They said, "agua, agua."

      Lanning, who does not speak Spanish, gave them water and decided not to call the Border Patrol.

      "Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't," he said. "By handing them over to the Border Patrol, I know that for the time being they won't end up dead out here in my desert. But I know in my heart that I have only postponed what- ever fate awaits them."

      Louie Gilot may be reached at lgilot@...; 546-6131.
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