A trial started last week in federal court in Tucson against vigilante rancher Roger Barnett, his wife, Barbara, and his brother, Donald—all charged with conspiring to violate the civil rights of undocumented immigrants who crossed through his sprawling property along the Mexican border near Douglas, AZ. Attorneys for the immigrants—five women and 11 men—accuse Barnett of holding the group captive at gunpoint, brutalizing one, threatening to turn his dog loose on them and saying he would shoot anyone who tried to escape. The 16 migrants are seeking $32 million in actual and punitive damages.
The immigrants are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). The suit also names Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, who MALDEF charges did nothing to prevent Barnett from holding their clients at “gunpoint, yelling obscenities at them and kicking one of the women.”
In the lawsuit, MALDEF charges that Barnett approached the group on March 7, 2004 as the immigrants moved through his 22,000-acre property. At one point, when Barnett’s dog barked at several of the women, he reportedly yelled at them in Spanish, “My dog is hungry and he’s hungry for buttocks.”
In 1998, Barnett began rounding up undocumented immigrants on his land and turning them over to the Border Patrol. He boasts that he has turned over 12,000 immigrants to the Border Patrol. He patrols the ranch in a pickup truck, dressed in a green shirt and camouflage hat, with his handgun and rifle, high-powered binoculars and a walkie-talkie. The garb is pretty clearly intended to mimic Border Patrol gear—opening the question of whether Barnett was illegally acting under color of law.
The numerous websites that glorify Barnett as a hero invariably say that migrants (condescendingly referred to as “illegals,” as if it were a noun) destroyed his property, broke into his home and “killed his calves.” But a close reading indicates this means the calves died after ingesting empty plastic water containers left on the trail—and in any case these incidents presumably happened before 1998, as they are what supposedly prompted Barnett’s vigilante campaign.
District Judge John Roll has rejected a motion to have the charges dropped, ruling there was sufficient evidence to present the matter to a jury. Barnett’s attorney, David Hardy, argues that “illegal immigrants” do not have the same rights as US citizens.
“This is my land. I’m the victim here,” Barnett says. “When someone’s home and loved ones are in jeopardy and the government seemingly can’t do anything about it, I feel justified in taking matters into my own hands. And I always watch my back.” (Sean Hannity at Fox News, Feb. 12; Washington Times, US Border Control blog, Feb. 9; Douglas Dispatch, Feb. 5)
Last September, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected Barnett’s appeal after a jury found him liable for assaulting a family of Latino US citizens while they were hunting on state land near his ranch. MALDEF, which also represented those plaintiffs, urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, arguing that the jury had rightfully found Barnett at fault for his attack on the family.
The Morales family and Emma English, a family friend, filed suit after Barnett confronted them on state leased land in November 2004, while they were on a hunting trip. Armed with an assault rifle, Barnett held the family at gunpoint, cursed and screamed racial slurs at them and threatened to kill them all. The jury heard the testimony of three young girls—all under the age of 12 at the time—that vividly described the event and the trauma they suffered at the hands of Barnett. The jury awarded the family $100,000 in damages.
“The Supreme Court’s decision means that Barnett will finally have to pay for his attack on the Morales family and Emma English,” said MALDEF attorney Marisol Perez. “Barnett’s actions were outrageous and offensive to notions of common decency.” (MALDEF press release, Sept. 23, 2008)
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