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In Texas, a welcome mat: ladders

Immigrants get a rancher's boost over the fences

FALFURRIAS, Texas -- A few Texas ranchers who are tired of costly repairs to cattle fences damaged by undocumented immigrants have installed an easier route over the US-Mexican border: ladders.

``It's an attempt to get them to use the ladders instead of tearing the fences," said Scott Pattinson, who owns one of a group of ranches known as La Copa.

The ranchers aired their frustration as the Bush administration was moving to tighten enforcement of the 2,000-mile Mexican border. More National Guard troops will begin assignments on the border today.

The La Copa ranches are just south of a US Border Patrol highway checkpoint that went up 75 miles from the border several years ago, sending migrants through the brambly scrub of nearby ranches.

Some immigrants walk for hours or days to skirt the checkpoints in temperatures of around 100 degrees. Their feet have worn visible paths through a forest of cactus and mesquite otherwise thick enough to conceal them from Border Patrol helicopters overhead, and agents only a few hundred yards away.

The paths lead from one ripped-down section of fencing to another. Texas ranches can be so large that days may pass before owners notice the hole in their fences, long after the livestock might escape.

Paul Johnson protects his 2,700-acre ranch of zebras, scimitar-horned oryx, and wildebeests with about 10 miles of high wire fence. He has joined neighbors in placing ladders along the way.

A Border Patrol agent, who identified himself only as J. Kicklighter, was patrolling the privately owned land last week.

He said he could not blame the ranchers for trying to protect their investment.

But apparently some immigrants think the ladders are too good to be true.

``They ignore it a lot," Johnson said. ``They're afraid that they're monitored by the Border Patrol."

Johnson plans to take the ladders down, worried about the message that he may be sending.

``I think what it does is give a signal that we are wanting them to cross there, don't mind the crossing, and that kind of magnifies the problem," Johnson said.

Another rancher, Michael Vickers, never liked the ladder idea and instead has ringed his fence with 220 volts of electricity.

``I've had a dose of it myself; it's not fun," he said.

``That's just my attitude," Vickers said. ``Why make it easier for them to trespass?"

The Bush administration has been planning stepped-up enforcement on the US-Mexico border, and the first of about 6,000 National Guard troops have been deployed in the four border states.

A small group of Utah National Guard troops have been building fences on the border for two weeks.

Additional Guard members are scheduled to begin work today on construction and other tasks, allowing Border Patrol agents to concentrate on enforcement duties in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

The troops will handle tasks such as building roads and fences, and operating surveillance equipment such as cameras and motion detectors.

The administration plans to hire 6,000 new Border Patrol agents, increasing their total number to 18,000 by 2008. The new agents will gradually replace National Guard troops on the border, and the number of troops is expected to drop to about 3,000 next year.

The fortification of the border is taking place as Congress continues to debate ways to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Debates on the varying proposals have centered on whether to criminalize the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who are believed to be living in the United States, or whether to institute a guest-worker program and give immigrants a chance to gain eventual US citizenship.

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