A WHILE BACK WE HEARD ABOUT an illegal immigrant who, just north of Raymondville, went directly to the Border Patrol with a wild story of being attacked by “un pollo gigante”! Despite his fright and visible injuries, no one, not even the agents, believed him. The man was clearly crazy.

Well, maybe. I’m not absolutely certain, but I suspect the poor guy did run into an avian of another kind: an emu. We keep several of them in our pastures to ward off coyotes; it is a rancher’s belief that an emu, with its powerful kick, will harm any coyote who threatens the calves it runs with. I don’t know how these birds respond to human intruders, but it does sound like there’s one man out there with firsthand knowledge!

Emus may not make the best border control, exactly, but the incident goes to show how immigration—ever the popular topic these days—intersects with our reality on the ground. There are two highways going north out of the Valley, U.S. 77 and U.S. 281, and people coming up from Mexico often follow the general direction of these roads. The ranch is roughly 45 miles from the border on U.S. 77, and our house is some 2 miles from the road, so naturally our land sees a lot of the foot traffic. On our daily rounds we’ll often find cans, wrappers, a shoe or two, empty milk jugs—all evidence of people on a long journey. Or at night we’ll hear the dogs barking and discover the next morning that the water at the barns has been left on. We’ve found that we have to keep locks on all our internal gates, because someone leaving a gate open between pastures as he walks through could destroy our breeding program.

Immigration has always been a constant for us, but these days it seems a lot different from how it used to be. When I was growing up, you’d see entire families coming through. They were clearly fleeing a terrible reality—why else make such a trek with a three-year-old in tow?—and many hoped to live here permanently. They would stop at the house to ask for food or if they could sleep the night in our barn. Once, there was this family of thirteen from El Salvador who stopped by when my parents weren’t home. The father was a teacher, and when he knocked on our door, all he wanted was a loaf of bread and some canned meat to feed his family, whose ages ranged from one to sixty. (My mother still remembers looking later for that Spam she knew she had bought.) The man wanted to give his family a better life, and we didn’t think twice about encounters like this, because back then the ranch felt perfectly safe. My brother, Mitch, and I would ride our three-wheelers out to the edge of the ranch without any supervision, and I would jog the three miles from our house to my grandmother’s alone.

Today I wouldn’t dream of going around the ranch by myself, let alone allow my kids to. Now, in addition to the desperate people trying to cross for a better life, there’s a new kind of illegal. From my perspective, this type does not appear to be coming to live and work; rather, many seem to come simply to make some fast money or haul contraband. The other day, for example, my parents saw some twelve men in camouflage walking through with backpacks. Not too long ago, someone stole a four-wheeler from the ranch south of us and then used wire cutters to cross all the fences going north. These aren’t just families anymore, and the changing landscape affects how we think about immigration. We’ve become more concerned for our safety, to the extent that when my husband, David, and I built our house, we purposely designed it to be less accessible. It’s square, with a patio in the middle, and our windows are as high and as small as possible. It sort of looks like the Alamo; my mother calls it Fort Saint Joe.

And yet even as we grow more wary, the truth is that we understand the situation on a human level in ways that others may not. My family has been here for generations, and even though I’m blond and green-eyed, I consider myself—my heritage is—Hispanic. We grew up bilingual, and we identify with those with whom we share a history, familiarity, and language. You can’t tell who’s legal or not by looks alone here; it’s highly probable that some of our kids’ friends or their parents are illegal. That’s just the way it is. For some people who don’t live in South Texas, the answer is cut-and-dried—rope off the border! But things are much more fluid than that. As long as they can make a better life here—and believe me, they can—people are going to keep coming. A fence is not going to stop that.

I’m not qualified to pose a solution, nor am I so ignorant as to think there’s a simple one, but it seems that we need new legal channels for those who want to work and positively contribute to our society. South Texas would benefit from such a labor force. Document them and let them pay their taxes. I don’t know if it’s a Bracero-type program or a temporary worker’s visa, but with the right arrangement, we would know who is here and have a way for everyone to be accountable to our system. If a family, say, is going to pay $1,500 a head for a coyote—the human kind, in this case—to smuggle them from Matamoros to Houston, let them pay that money toward getting documented. Once we have legal pathways in place for those who truly want to contribute here, then we can focus the Border Patrol’s efforts on the drug traffickers, the people smugglers, and the other negative elements that seem to cross daily.

The answers aren’t easy, and for now we’re increasingly watchful about what happens in our pastures—and not just with our emus! Our children, Royse and Claudette, know that when we spot “illegal aliens,” they are to stay in the house. They mostly understand the situation, but not entirely; after seeing a program recently about space aliens on the Discovery Channel, there’s been some confusion. How is it that if you land here in a spaceship, asks Royse, you’re not an illegal alien, but if you are just walking through, from a country we often visit for dinner, you are? I hope I can resolve that question for him soon.

Tonnyre Thomas Joe lives on the Thomas Ranch, in Kenedy and Willacy counties. She has been chronicling her life as a rancher for Texas Monthly since August 2006. Read her previous installments.