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Paul Greenberg / April 28, 2010

Death of a Rancher

Climate can shape character. As anyone who’s driven west past the 98th meridian knows. That’s where the rains stop, as the first wave of settlers discovered. After a deceptively wet season or two, they beat a hasty retreat. Out there creek beds run dry, except when a flash flood turns them into a raging menace. The trees grow stunted, the people tall, and the conversation as sparse as the vegetation. People may not use many words, but what they say you can usually trust.

I’ve known a few Texans like that. They were rare even by the time we used to take the kids to Waco to visit their grandparents. But they were prized, the way folks will save daguerreotypes of pioneer ancestors, or the way nouveau types in Dallas prize Fort Worth – just to remind themselves of what character was.

One such type I knew was a newspaper editor who spoke in the same economical style he wrote – to the point and no more. He saw no need to elaborate, and would as soon kill an adjective as look at it. He once refused to carry out the publisher’s order to run a story puffing a big new advertiser, but he wouldn’t resign over it. He insisted on being fired. And he was.

Not one to leave anything undone, he told his now former boss, “Now that you’ve done this deed…” and proceeded to explain why it is the essence of a newspaper’s integrity to separate news from opinion. And both from advertising. Then, having said his piece without rancor, he left, straight as an arrow.

By all descriptions, Rob Krentz was such a man. The 58-year-old third-generation rancher was a peacemaker, respected by all who knew him. They say his very presence could calm. His 38,000-acre spread outside Douglas, Ariz., lay astride the Chiricahua Corridor, an old smuggling trail that meanders up from Mexico. Of late, with the drug wars crossing the border from Juarez and Tijuana, the lives of those who just want to be left alone to live along the border have been turned into lives of fear. Their homes are regularly burglarized, their security a thing of the past.

Rob Krentz was a peaceable man who bore no one ill will, including the illegals who regularly crossed his property. He even sympathized with their desire to get a new start in the Land of Opportunity. As he once told an interviewer, “If they come and ask for water, I’ll still give them water. You know, that’s just my nature.”

Only if the trespasser looked as if he needed help might the rancher call the Border Patrol. His was the code of any people who live in a desert climate, where hospitality isn’t just a gesture but a necessity. When some lost soul comes wandering into your tent, he is your responsibility. See the Book of Genesis.

This long-time rancher and son of ranchers could have walked out of another book – Elmer Kelton’s classic Western novel, “The Time It Never Rained.” Which is dedicated to “the old-time Western ranchman, whose lifestyle gave him an inkling of Heaven and more than his proper share of Hell.”

Rob Krentz was trying to help a stranger one Saturday morning, March 27, when he radioed his brother Phil. “I see an immigrant out here and he appears to need help,” he said. “Call the Border Patrol.” That would be his last transmission. They found his body just before midnight. He’d been shot but managed to drive away before losing consciousness, and his life. Nothing had been taken from him, his gun was still in its holster. His dog was dead, too.

The old-time ranchman was just the latest, if one of the more prominent, victims of the violence that is spreading like an oil stain all along the border. Last year the Border Patrol reported making 241,673 arrests just in its Tucson (or Arizona) Sector, which covers 262 miles of border.

To quote Leo Banks of the Tucson Weekly: “Americans who do not live along the Mexican border often assume the antipathy to illegal immigration arises from racial or cultural concerns. But talk to the people on the ground, and what they fear most is the loss of personal security. They are angry that the federal government is unable to provide them with the most basic of human rights.”

Those who live along this lawless border feel stalked. And have reason to. Rob Krentz’s sister Susan, a teacher and bus driver at the little one-room schoolhouse in Apache, Ariz., says the school has been broken into so many times there’s nothing left worth stealing. “Americans shouldn’t have to live like this,” she says.

But they do. The border is largely open. Except for occasional sweeps, the Border Patrol seems unable to deal with the steady inflow of illegals. Attempts to build a virtual wall have proven expensive duds.

There have been other times in American history when law and order were threatened and citizens’ basic rights ignored. And there have been presidents who made it clear that the law of the land would be enforced. See Little Rock, Ark., 1957. But this administration, far from recognizing the chronic crisis along the border, is reducing the Border Patrol’s budget, cutting its numbers, turning down its requests for more vehicles and equipment.

John McCain, the senior senator from Arizona, responded to the latest outrage by writing a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security asking that the federal government “curb this violence and protect its citizens from criminals coming across the border….”

But it’s a little late to help Rob Krentz. And occasional sweeps by the Border Patrol won’t stop the flow of people and drugs along the smuggling routes. This problem called for more than a lick-and-a-promise long ago.

Yes, the best solution would be a comprehensive reform of the immigration system, one that took the millions of illegal immigrants in this country out of the shadows and set them on the long road to citizenship with appropriate penalties, requirements and waiting time. (They shouldn’t be allowed to break in line ahead of those who came here legally.) A national border ought to be a national border, not a sham.

But all that could take another decade – if it ever comes to pass at all. People along the border can’t wait that long for their basic rights to be protected, their lives and property safeguarded. Nor should they have to.

Many of us have resisted calling for the National Guard to guard the border; the armed forces of the United States already have a couple of wars on their hands. But there comes a time when only a show of force, and more than just a show of it, will do. It’s time to protect our people at last. And mobilize our own federales. Call it a memorial to Rob Krentz. And the way of life he stood for.

© 2010 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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