ARIVACA — This tiny town 11 miles from the border has become the face of growing frustration toward interior border immigration enforcement and checkpoints.
But when you get a group of independent-minded people in a close-knit community, nothing is simple.
Founded in the 1800s, Arivaca has been a haven for miners, ranchers, hippies, smugglers, addicts and retirees. In the past 20 years, people and drug smuggling has spiked.
That led to more Border Patrol agents, surveillance towers and checkpoints, which have come to symbolize concerns about civil rights violations and loss of privacy, the deaths of border crossers and the effectiveness of the Border Patrol.
For the last three years, a local group with outside support has called attention to the checkpoint in nearby Amado, where vehicles have to stop as Border Patrol agents ask about occupants’ citizenship. Opponents monitor the checkpoint and pass petitions, all in an effort to shut it down.
Regardless of whether they are for or against it, at the end of the day it’s a “live and let live” kind of town, residents say.
“This is Arivaca; we all have different ideas,” said Jim Chilton, a fifth-generation Arizona cattleman. “We respect people with different perspectives. That doesn’t make them not our friends.”
Arivaca, nestled in the Altar Valley and surrounded by mountains, is one of the oldest towns in the state, formed during a short-lived mining boom, said Mary Kasulaitis, town historian and retired librarian.
There’s still the 1870 schoolhouse, the cemetery, and the now-named Casino Rural, which was a hotel in 1879. There’s also La Gitana, a bar and restaurant from the 1940s, the post office, an artist co-op and the Mercantile, a general grocery store with a gas station.
During the Mexican Revolution, middle- and upper-class Mexicans left their ranches and businesses and resettled in Arivaca.
Until WWII, most residents were Hispanic, but now they are older and white. About 700 people live here, Kasulaitis said, down from about 2,500 a decade ago.
Patty Miller, who was on her way to New Mexico from Oregon in 1978 when she stopped here and stayed, said it was easy to get by.
“You could live with a minimum amount of money. My share was $50 a year,” said Miller, who is part of the group organizing against the checkpoints.
“It gave you the freedom from having to work in dreary jobs just to survive,” she said. They lived in tepees, vans and school buses, and hauled water and wood to cook.
Initially there were “Hippies not wanted” and “Go back to California” signs, residents say, but they learned to live together.
“They would tell me when they saw a problem with one of my cows. They looked after them,” said Chilton, who works a 50,000-acre ranch south of Arivaca in the Coronado National Forest.
Chilton moved here in 1987 when he and his wife were looking to expand. The land was vast, had more than two dozen species of grass and a good amount of rain.
“It was wonderful.”
The area’s relationship with contraband is almost as old as Arivaca.
Kasulaitis’ favorite quote is from E.B. Gate, a mining superintendent.
“There’s a great deal of smuggling between Sonora and Tucson, which would naturally be done near the line if it could be,” he wrote in 1878. “In this respect it might not be profitable to have military posts too near us.”
Smuggling continues, but the volume changed over time.
“We didn’t think about it then,” said Gloria Williams, who moved to Arivaca in 1979 from Detroit. “There were always people traveling through, but it wasn’t a huge issue until they really started closing the borders in different areas and we had a huge wave coming through.” She had two border-crosser camps on her 40 acres during the 2000s.
“It was awful. You’d see people every day out on the rez (reservation),” said Jill Farrell, “You are seeing people who could be dead the next morning.” Both Williams and Farrell are board members with the Arivaca Action Center, a nonprofit that includes a low-cost preschool program.
In 2008, the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, 117,000 acres of grasslands and mesquite-covered groves, was reported to be one of the busiest corridors for people and drug smuggling in the Southwest, with 100,000 to 300,000 people crossing through annually.
Stories of high-speed chases, drug busts and migrants dying became increasingly common.
Chilton estimates that up to 50,000 people went through his ranch in a given year. He installed drinking fountains in the water troughs.
“No one deserves to die of thirst, I don’t care whether they are druggers or an MS-13,” he said, referring to members of a gang active in the U.S., Mexico and Central America. “Life is important.”
Many residents have a story of a time they helped someone who was lost or injured or when they found a body.
The Samaritans, a humanitarian group founded in Tucson, came out and hiked in the area in search of those injured or in need of help. Later, No More Deaths started to camp about 20 miles from the border on private land to aid border crossers in distress.
People would be led to Arivaca and abandoned, said Andrea Morondos, who has co-owned the Mercantile for 37 years, when her family moved from Hawaii.
“They would get dropped off and told to wait for the bus when there were no buses there and they would ask, ‘Where’s Florida?’ ” she said. “I felt sorry for them.”
In 2005, the Border Patrol was arresting an average of 1,300 people daily in the agency’s Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona from the New Mexico state line to the Yuma County line.
To counter the traffic, the agency sent more agents to the area, installed cameras and made the checkpoint on Arivaca Road permanent, one of two checkpoints residents must use in order to leave town.
Soon after, traffic decreased.
“We have no abandoned cars, no more high-speed chases with cars turning over,” said Sue Chilton. “Now it doesn’t happen next to ever.”
Beth Lusby, who moved to the area from California in 1976 and supports the checkpoint, hasn’t had to replace her fence in five or six years. “Before, we would buy a roll of fencing every couple of weeks.”
The number of calls also strained the resources of the volunteer fire department charged with covering more than 600 square miles.
But the increased law enforcement and humanitarian groups weren’t welcomed by all residents.
The aggravation of those against the checkpoints and what they call the militarization of the border culminated in People Helping People, a group founded in 2012.
“We started talking about organizing because it was a source of constant frustration,” said Peter Ragan, who grew up in Phoenix and moved to Arivaca in 2002 to get away from urban living.
He has been an advocate of civil rights and an outspoken critic of other enforcement measures, including the towers — part of the failed $1 billion virtual-fence program the government canceled because of glitches and major delays.
“The amount of people they apprehend is pretty much negligible, but everybody who goes through there is checked out for drug enforcement,” Ragan said.
The Border Patrol doesn’t release checkpoint-specific statistics, but in 2013 less than 1 percent of all arrests in the sector were at a checkpoint.
The group’s core members include several who moved here in the late 1970s. Others came as part of No More Deaths or the Samaritans and decided to make this their home.
For Miller, who has lived here for nearly 40 years, the checkpoints pose both humanitarian and privacy issues, and “the people are sympathetic, good-hearted people,” she said of fellow group members.
After the campaign to remove the checkpoint intensified, a sign in support of the Border Patrol popped up on the side of the road across from the checkpoint.
Williams, with the Action Center, has mixed feelings about it.
“It’s true that traffic definitely stopped,” she said, but it also coincided with the faltering U.S. economy.
In the beginning, she got upset every time she had to go through the checkpoint.
“Why isn’t it at the border?” she would wonder. Agents asked where she was going, what she had in her trunk, where she was coming from.
“But then I realized it wasn’t good for my health to be so angry,” she said, “so I had to let it go.”
For Farrell, the number of agents and the helicopters hovering above the desert is a waste of money.
“It’s ridiculous that I have to check in with authorities to go to the grocery store,” she said. “What country am I living in? It’s wrong.”
Neither of them is involved with People helping People, though.
“I’ve given up thinking about stuff like that,” Farrell said, “I’d rather do something now for what’s in front of me.”
Even some of those who agree the checkpoint has diminished traffic through the area are conflicted.
“It’s insulting you have to be asked whether you are a U.S. citizen,” said Chilton, the rancher.
“Insulting is not the right word,” his wife, Sue, interceded.
“It is for me. The idea that inside the United States, that we have to go through a checkpoint and say we are citizens, is a bad idea in my opinion,” he said.
“However, the trade-off to the horrible problem that existed before the checkpoint is such that I would rather say I’m a U.S. citizen and go through the checkpoint than not have a checkpoint.”
Today, arrests of those crossing the border illegally are about a tenth of what they were at their peak in 2000, when agents made more than 600,000 apprehensions in the sector.
Although there are fewer migrants coming through, Chilton and other ranchers who have cameras on their property are quick to show pictures of men dressed in camouflage carrying backpacks of marijuana.
A few months ago, Kasulaitis found marijuana on her property, apparently dropped from an ultralight.
“They drove right to the fence, came in and picked up this load but forgot a brick,” she said.
Arivacans can’t agree on whether the checkpoint should stay or go, but most say that the Border Patrol should work closer to the border. The government should re-establish an effective guest worker program and try to reduce America’s illegal drug use.
While immigration, the Border Patrol and smuggling are part of life here, “we are all trying to do other things,” Kasulaitis said, “trying to provide something this town needs.”
There are more than a dozen grassroots organizations offering, among other services, help to pay a bill, provide medical care or serve a warm meal to the elderly.
On Sundays, many gather at the coffee shop to wait for Bob, who drives from Green Valley to deliver newspapers he buys at Safeway.
“If he can’t make it, we really miss him,” Lusby said.
“I don’t like the protesting of the checkpoint,” she said, “but if I saw one of those people on the side of the road in need of help, I would stop. I don’t care.”