HACHITA — If you live in this tiny town at the entrance to New Mexico’s Bootheel region, population 34 (or 70, depending on the source), it’s easy to have a siege mentality. You have dogs. You erect a fence around your property.
You call the Border Patrol when you hear people rustling around in the abandoned double-wide next door.
This unincorporated community is the last populated place on the highway to the Antelope Wells port of entry, which has seen a surge in migrants apprehended after they cross the border illegally in recent months. Hachita is 45 miles north of the border.
Shortly after midnight on Jan 24, a group of 306 migrants was apprehended at the port. It was the 26th group of 100 people or more who have been apprehended at Antelope Wells since October.
“That’s a lot of people,” said Dan Stalnaker, who retired to Hachita from Michigan 2½ years ago. “That’s serious business.”
Border Patrol officials say there has been an increase in migrants crossing at Antelope Wells to seek asylum because it’s easier to gain access to the country at the remote desert crossing. They come after the port of entry closes at 4 p.m., usually at night, and walk around the barriers.
They don’t try to avoid detection. They want to be caught, Border Patrol officials say, because once apprehended, they will be bused to the Border Patrol station at Lordsburg, and will begin the process to be considered for asylum.
Border Patrol officials say that smugglers in Mexico are transporting large groups of migrants from places like Juárez to a few miles from the Antelope Wells port of entry because it has become more difficult to enter the country at busier border crossings in places like El Paso.
The changing migrant pathways are making residents of this former mining town, and the country that surrounds it, nervous. There’s not much here anymore. There’s a single store and gas station. There’s still a post office.
There are no schools in Hachita; the local kids are bused to Animas, 30 miles away. A former Catholic church with a stone steeple, itself a former school, is closed. There are more vacant dwellings than occupied ones.
Bonnie Denzler, who retired to Hachita with her husband three years ago, said she is awaken in the middle of the night several days a week by dogs barking next door. She’s heard talking outside near her house late at night, too.
“I’ve heard stuff and it makes me wonder,” she said. “I don’t want to look outside, because you never what’s outside your window. It’s really disconcerting because you don’t know what’s going on.”
Denzler, 59, only returned to Hachita recently but her family has roots in town. Her parents once owned a store here and she lived in the town in the 1980s. When she and her husband returned in retirement, she bought her sister’s house, which had been sitting empty.
She is concerned about the increase in migrants crossing the border in the Bootheel region because, she said, there are too few law enforcement agents — Border Patrol and county sheriff’s deputies — to cover a vast and largely empty region.
A retired medical assistant from Pueblo, Colo., she was angry when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham chose to visit the border earlier this month but went to Santa Teresa, rather than southwestern New Mexico, and then concluded that there is no crisis on the border, contrary to the opinion of President Donald Trump.
“She needs to come down here to this area — to see how wide open it is and how easy it is for people to jump the fence,” Denzler said. “People need to see what’s down here and that it’s not as safe as they’re spouting it is. When you have that many people coming across the border at the same time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that they believe it’s so safe down here.”
Stalnaker, 45, a former truck driver, decided to move to New Mexico after traveling to the state to help settle the affairs of an aunt who died. He loved it and bought a house in Hachita on Craigslist.
He said he hasn’t seen too many migrants because he lives in the busy part of town, but said migrants have occasionally hid in the abandoned trailer next door. He has a fence around his yard and dogs that patrol it.
“That’s a good deterrent,” he said. “I imagine if we didn’t, we’d have issues. We’ve had to call Border Patrol on several occasions.”
Amanda Adame has a somewhat different perspective because of where she lives. She, her husband and their two children live on a 24,320-acre cattle ranch northeast of Hachita. She’s president of the Hachita Community Center Association, which operates a community center in town and sponsors a reunion there every other year.
Adame’s nearest neighbor is six miles away. Migrants regularly cross her ranch. She knows because she finds backpacks, blankets, shoes and water bottles — “oh, the water bottles” — all the time.
A few years ago, while checking the water tanks on her ranch, she saw movement near a distant tank. She stopped, looked through her binoculars and saw eight men wearing camouflage gear with rifles over their shoulders. She turned around. She hoped they wouldn’t follow her home.
“By the time they get to my house the Border Patrol is not going to catch them,” she said. “There’s too much space.”
Adame said she’s not afraid of the asylum seekers, who cross in full view of Border Patrol agents at the port of entry and are immediately captured. But she said the sudden surge of large groups of migrants means Border Patrol agents are so busy processing asylum seekers that the rest of the border, and the desert beyond, are not adequately patrolled.
“Every time we hear that asylum seekers have turned themselves in, when it’s 100 people or more, they’re pulling the Border Patrol off the road,” Adame said. “So the drug cartels are coming in. The Border Patrol is not catching them. Those guys are the bad guys.
“I’m scared for my life and I’m scared for my kids’ lives. Who knows what’s coming across? They don’t know what’s coming in because they’re not catching them. I feel that the biggest thing I should be scared of out here in the middle of nowhere are rattlesnakes, not two-legged rattlesnakes.”
Asked if there’s a crisis at the border, residents of Hachita and nearby areas, said again and again, “Yes, there is.” There was agreement that greater border security is essential, whether that means a wall, taller fences or improved technology.
Jeff Callum, who owns the Hachita Food Mart, the only store in town, disagrees. He has lived in the area off and on since 1990 and believes the fears of his fellow residents are unwarranted.
He said he’s seen no evidence that the number of migrants passing through town has increased, except those transported to Lordsburg on Border Patrol buses. He hasn’t seen any. He hasn’t heard them. He said the dogs bark at night when coyotes come into town, not migrants.
Callum owns a house in Sierra County’s Williamsburg, but doesn’t presently have a home in Hachita so he often sleeps in the back of his Toyota Land Cruiser in front of his store. He said he’s never been by awaken by unexplained noises. He leaves plenty of stuff of value unlocked in front of his store, but nothing has been stolen.
“I think they’re being paranoid,” Callum said about the concerns of other residents. “They’re watching the news and all this border stuff. The truth is we don’t see any of them. We see the buses coming through in the morning. None of them show up here in our town.”
He said he’s noticed one change because of the surge of migrants crossing at night at Antelope Wells.