Robert Krentz had run cattle in the badlands of south-east Arizona for most of his 58 years, on a ranch in the shadows of the lonely Pedregosa Mountains that had been in his family since 1907. The Apache once roamed here. To the west is Tombstone, town of bandits and scene of the infamous shootout with the law at the OK Corral.
Krentz, a father of three who was known for the compassion he showed to the border-crossers from Mexico who frequently slid through these lands, was gunned down in a distant corner of his 14,000 hectare ranch in late March. They found his body still in his idling vehicle 13 hours after he had radioed home to say he was with illegal border-crossers. His mortally injured dog, Blue, stayed with him.
Krentz has become to America what SIEV4 was to Australia in 2001. That was the bedraggled craft that carried 223 asylum seekers into Australia's northern waters and helped deliver that year's election to John Howard after he and other ministers claimed that adults on board had thrown their children into the sea.
In his death Krentz has given birth to what is, for America's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, the most fearsome state powers yet. In two weeks, a new law will go into effect in Arizona, home to 500,000 illegals. It will allow state police to stop people on reasonable suspicion and demand to see proof that they are in the US legally.
In Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is ready. He will run a sweep of the city as soon as the law is operating and cart off more illegals to the tent city that already houses 2000 Mexicans. Arpio holds them up to ridicule by requiring they live mostly outside under the Arizona sun, wearing pink underwear.
In an America still in the lock of recession, sullen lines of long-term unemployed and tighted-fisted bankers, the illegal day labourer is tolerated less and hounded more. Some 20 states have indicated they may follow Arizona's lead, despite strenuous arguments that it will lead to racial profiling by police and make life even less bearable for the millions who live and work in the American underground.
In June, Fremont, a tiny town in Nebraska, passed an ordinance barring illegal immigrants from renting houses or taking any job. Socially liberal Massachusetts has made it harder for illegal migrants to use public services and a plan to set up a hotline to dob in illegals was only narrowly defeated. Jackson, a small town in up-state New York, has voted to conduct official town business, including information about emergency services, in only English.
If truth is the first casualty in war, then it is also an early victim in debate about immigration. As in Australia in 2001, America's border-crossers are frequently portrayed by senior politicians as criminals.
No more stunning has been the turnaround by former Republican presidential candidate John McCain. In 2007, he cut a lonely figure in the Republican Party when he spearheaded promotion of a bill that would have given millions of illegals a path to citizenship. Now, beset by the mood against illegals in Arizona, and fighting to keep his Senate seat, McCain declared a week ago that most should be sent back across the border. Along with Arizona's Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, McCain has taken to portraying illegal immigrants from Mexico as criminals and drug-runners — when evidence suggests most are careful to stay within the law.
So, as Australia prepares to enter an election campaign likely to dominated, as in 2001, by debate about immigration, America also wrestles with the issue that almost every president in his first term has vowed to fix but none has.
It is now Barack Obama's turn. He has so far resisted the tide of public opinion in America, which polls show is strongly (60 to 70 per cent) in favour of Arizona's law. Let's concede early, though, that the President's stance is not taken without being mindful that America's vast Hispanic constituency is crucial to the Democrats.
Aside from last week's launch of a lawsuit to stop Arizona's law, Obama wants to return to what is essentially the Bush plan (yes, George W.) that nearly became law five years ago. It offered an amnesty to the 10 to 12 million illegals in America that would have required them to pay fines and hefty back taxes during a 12-year path to eventual US citizenship. Obama, in a nod to the Republicans, whom he would need to get the measure passed, said he would also require illegals to admit they broke the law.
He is also deploying an additional 1200 National Guard troops and spending an extra $US500 million ($A570.2 million) to make the Mexican border more secure — another inducement to Republicans. Unsurprisingly, the Republicans, who argue that at least another 6000 troops are needed on the border and that its 3000-kilometre length be fenced, have not been impressed.
It is hard to imagine that the opposing forces on the immigration debate will find much common ground — especially in lean times, when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have so many ready ears. If the court challenge to Arizona's law fails, then the stop-on-suspicion rule will surely extend across America and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's mean tent city will grow larger.
In Australia it seems that even though the flow of illegals is just a trickle compared to the US, asylum seekers too, will again be locked behind the wire in the remotest place that can be found— no matter who wins the election.
Not only people cross borders. So, too, do mean spirits.
Bernard Lagan is an Australian journalist based in New York.