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Raising (questions in) Arizona

21 February 2007

I’m not the only one who noticed that whoever shot up a vanload of farmworkers in Eloy Arizona last Feb. 1 didn’t sound like Mexican gangsters

Billie Stanton writes in the Tucson Citizen

With anti-illegal immigrant forces roiling, Arizona now has a dubious distinction.

More hate crimes are investigated here than anywhere else by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Montgomery, Ala.-based center first won renown for probing race-based crimes in the South.

Alas, the South has got nothing on us these days.

“We’re spending more energy covering Arizona than almost the rest of the country – much more than any other state,” reports SPLC Director of Investigations Michael Potok.

The attack came on the heels of a Wednesday night incident on the border near Sasabe, where 18 illegal immigrants were robbed at gunpoint by four heavily armed men wearing ski masks.

And both attacks echo another near Eloy on Jan. 27, in which four men confronted 12 illegal immigrants, killed an Eloy man and shot a teenager.

The Eloy assault was waged by four men – three whites and a Hispanic who spoke limited Spanish – who were wearing military-style berets and camouflage clothing, witnesses told authorities.

Law enforcement, as well as several humanitarian border workers, say these crimes surely were committed by rival smugglers or robbers seeking to take advantage of people migrating illegally.

Potok and Tucson lawyer Isabel Garcia aren’t so sure.

“If vigilantes are out there murdering people, no one’s safe. Some of these people are quite willing to point a gun in the face of a U.S. citizen, particularly if that citizen has brown skin,” says Potok.

“And the Barnett case showed that if you have brown skin, you better look out.”

Roger Barnett, who owns and leases 22,000 acres in southern Arizona, has bragged about capturing more than 10,000 people who crossed his land.

In November, an Arizona jury ordered him to pay $98,750 to a family of U.S. citizens whom he terrorized in 2004.

Ronald Morales had been hunting with his father, Arturo, and daughters, ages 9 and 11, and another 11-year-old girl, when Barnett confronted and threatened them Oct. 30, 2004, testimony showed.

Although a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy had evidence to charge Barnett with eight felony counts of aggravated assault, the county prosecutor declined to file charges.

Barnett and his brother, Donald, own a tow-truck company that contracts with the Border Patrol, and both are former sheriff’s deputies, the SPLC notes.

The case is the latest in a string of hate-based crimes against illegal immigrants.

Arizona’s border region has become an incubator for race-based hatred, attracting national attention, none of it flattering.

“I wouldn’t dismiss the notion that these are hate crimes,” says Garcia, a longtime humanitarian and lawyer for illegal immigrants.

“If it is vigilantes, I think they are trying to put fear in Mexicans and to throw all of us off to blame smugglers and continue to militarize this border.

“Most politicians will look at these incidents and say we need more agents, we need a virtual wall, and on and on.”

But it is the militarization of our border, begun in 1994, that has funneled illegal immigrants into a few narrow and extremely dangerous crossing routes.

Such “enforcement first” tactics clearly don’t thwart illegal immigration; they merely make aspiring immigrants more vulnerable, whether to criminals or deaths in our rugged desert.

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