Following a couple of tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret medic, Robert Heilig spent much of his career in government intelligence work. When he retired, Heilig, who holds a law degree and a master’s degree in education, taught college in Nevada before coming back to Arizona four years ago to raise cattle.

So Heilig is familiar with challenges, and as a fourth-generation Arizona rancher, he knew about the ones particular to ranching. But the location of this ranch  —  near Nogales, Ariz., on the border between the United States and Mexico  —  has brought him face-to-face with a whole different set of trials. 

On the Double Bar R Ranch, covering almost 13,000 acres in the Sonoran desert in the shadow of the Patagonia Mountains, Mexican cows show up frequently. “I have a good friendly relationship with the neighbors,” Heilig says. “I just call them up and say, ‘Meet me at the border, and we’ll cross them.’  ”

It’s nothing unusual for a rancher to return his neighbors’ cows, though Heilig does have to be careful to keep his bulls away from the wandering Mexican cows. “My bull pasture is as far from the border as I can get. They have trichomaniasis in Sonora. I haven’t seen Mexican bulls up here, so I’m not so worried about my cows.”

But there is no way to avoid the illegal workers who cross the border on his ranch to find work in the United States or the smugglers bringing in drugs, and he sees them often. His ranch is in a high-traffic spot; the U.S. Border Patrol estimates about 2,000 people a day cross the border in that area. “The trails going through my ranch look like the Forest Service built them,” Heilig says.

Once a month or so, while riding his pastures, he stumbles upon stashed drugs waiting to be picked up. In those cases, he rides away, knowing there is probably someone in the area with an eye on the stash, and calls Border Patrol.

He did the same recently when he and his wife were out riding and two men appeared suddenly, pointing AK47s  —   turned and rode away, then called Border Patrol. While he has empathy for the illegal workers  —  “Their plight is terrible,” he says  —  the drug smugglers are another matter. “They’re dangerous people. I wouldn’t leave the house without a sidearm, just to protect myself if I get caught in the crossfire.” Besides the workers and the smugglers, bandits roam the border area, waiting for a chance to rob either group. It’s not unusual for Heilig and his wife to hear gunshots from their front porch.

Smugglers often use packhorses, and Heilig regularly finds those that were turned loose because they’d gone lame or outlived their usefulness. Many were stolen from Mexican ranches; if they have a brand that Heilig or his cowboy, who grew up just across the border, recognize, they’ll call the owner. Otherwise, he turns the horses over to the local livestock inspector  —  unless they’re in such bad shape they wouldn’t survive the trip, in which case he’ll put them down. 

Keeping up with the damage all the travelers do to his fences can take much of his day. He might repair five cut fences one day but find five new cuts the next morning. “I wouldn’t leave the house without 20 feet of smooth wire, and it’s frequently not enough. Each repair takes 45 minutes, say, one hour to fix,” Heilig says. “That’s five hours out of your day, and you haven’t done all the other work you need to do.”

Installing gates doesn’t seem to help. Recently he found one of his gates not only open but also taken off its hinges and lying on the ground. He located the cows and put them back through before fixing the gate.

Of course, travelers in the desert need water, and cut water pipes are another problem for Heilig  —  one he’s trying to address by adding drinking fountains or spring-loaded spigots wherever he has storage, so that thirsty immigrants are able to get a drink without creating havoc with the whole system. Last year, 45,000 gallons ran out of Heilig’s storage tanks because of cut pipes. His improvements haven’t solved the problem, but they have reduced it. 

Of the illegal immigration issue, on his ranch and beyond, Heilig says it’s “a hugely complex problem. First we need to get control of the border, which we don’t have right now  —  animals and people go back and forth at will.” An impenetrable fence, even if such a thing existed, is not the answer. “We also need some way to solve the problem that exists, which is that we need the workers and they need to get the workers out of the country. In Mexico’s economy, the No. 1 product is money sent back to Mexico from Mexican workers here. We need to figure out how to process those workers across the border.”

In the meantime, Heilig makes it his business to maintain excellent relationships with his Mexican neighbors and with Border Patrol agents, as he is in frequent contact with both. And he deals with the daily frustrations matter-of-factly. “I realized the challenges were here,” he says. “I didn’t realize the extent to which they were here. It frustrates you, but it’s a fact of life. I don’t see it stopping any time soon.”