Border Brouhaha

The way the lawsuit tells it, Jose Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta had been walking for one day and two nights before the group he was traveling with ran out of water and food in the high desert of Cochise County, Ariz., just north of the Mexican border.

It was the winter of 2003, and Quiroz and four other Mexican nationals were trying to cross into Arizona, just as thousands of other undocumented immigrants do every year, choosing the 82-mile swath of border which spans Cochise County because it's thought to be patrolled less efficiently by the United States Border Patrol than other popular crossing spots in Texas and California.

Though Quiroz's group had made it into Arizona safely, that meant relatively little. Weather can be treacherous here — with searing heat during the summer and freezing temperatures throughout the winter. Over the past two years, the Cochise County sheriff's department has found more than 40 bodies of undocumented immigrants, most of them dead from either dehydration or hypothermia, depending on the season. And as the biting air bore down this particular January, one of Quiroz's group wandered off in search of help.

After another day, and with no sign of their comrade, Quiroz decided to set off on his own, walking through the night nearly eight hours before finally reaching a highway at daybreak, where he began trying to flag down cars for help.

Luckily, it seemed, a pick-up truck soon spotted Quiroz and pulled over along side of the road. But when Quiroz approached the truck, a man stepped out of the vehicle and opened up the back of his camper, unleashing two growling dogs. Terrified, Quiroz fled down the highway, but the dogs were too fast, knocking him to the ground and biting him, he says. Quiroz claims the man then walked towards him screaming in English, before grabbing Quiroz's hair and shaking and smacking him repeatedly on his face, head and neck. The man then walked back to his car and took out what appeared to be a two-way radio; two Border Patrol officers soon appeared and took Quiroz into custody.

Quiroz was deported back to Mexico the next day, but with the help of local immigrants' rights groups, he decided to sue local rancher Roger Barnett — the man he says attacked him — for battery, false imprisonment and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He's not alone. Three other lawsuits are currently pending against Barnett, his wife Barbara and brother Donald who often accompany Barnett as he patrols on or near his 22,000-acre ranch, alleging a litany of charges — from impersonating Border Patrol officers to assaulting and violating the rights of undocumented immigrants or Mexican-Americans whom the Barnetts came upon.

The lawsuits have piled up largely without notice, as the national media has instead riveted its attention on the now infamous Minutemen — the vigilante border protection group who earlier this month fanned out across this expansive southern Arizona county in armed patrols, vowing to secure the border if the federal authorities couldn't. But up until now, at least, it's the Barnetts who have troubled immigrants' rights groups the most.

"[The Barnetts] like to play cowboy. They like to think of themselves as Wyatt Earp and go after Mexicans to essentially reinforce their images as macho men. It's despicable," says Jesus Romo, Quiroz's lawyer.

Aside from Quiroz's suit, filed late last year, Cochise County resident Donald Makenzie is suing over an October, 2003 incident in which Makenzie came upon Roger and Donald Barnett, armed with guns and marching approximately 30 Mexican nationals through the property on which Makenzie works. Barbara Barnett was present as well, according to the suit.

Makenzie, who is vice president of Summerland Monastery Inc, a local non-profit that gives humanitarian aid to migrant families who often traverse the monastery's 1,240 acres just after crossing the border, thought Barnett was a federal officer because he says Barnett was wearing a U.S. Border Patrol hat. Makenzie, who's also represented by Romo, is now seeking damages for trespassing and impersonating a federal officer.

Another suit filed last year against the Barnetts by Arizona resident, Ronald Morales and his family, represented by Romo as well, is also pending. The Morales family claims Barnett, who again was with his wife and brother, threatened them, including daughters Angelique and Venese (ages nine and 11), with a loaded AR-15 automatic rifle after they'd wandered unknowingly onto his property during a deer hunting trip in October of last year. The Morales family is Mexican-American and U.S. citizens.

"Barnett mistreats both Mexican nationals and Mexican-American citizens equally," says Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action Network, a Tucson-based immigrants' rights group, which has been working with Romo on the lawsuits.

Most recently, on March 4, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed suit against the Barnetts, alleging, among other things, that Roger Barnett, accompanied by Donald and Barbara, assaulted and violated the civil rights of 19 undocumented immigrants they'd found trekking though the Barnett ranch a year ago. According to the lawsuit, Barnett approached the group with his dogs, and waved his gun at them, calling them "fucking Mexicans" and ordering them to move.

The lawsuit also charges that Barnett told one of the women, 23-year-old Ana Maria Vicente, who was hiding in some underbrush, "Levantate perra" (Get up bitch), before kicking her in her leg. Barnett eventually called the Border Patrol, who took the group into custody before deporting them.

"They feared for their lives," says Araceli S. Perez, the MALDEF lawyer handling the case. "It was clear Barnett's actions were motivated by racial animus."

MALDEF has also named Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever in its suit, claiming he's done nothing to stop Barnett despite the fact that 20 incident reports were filed by his office between 1999 and 2002 regarding Barnett's detention of immigrants.

Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas confirmed that her department had investigated and filed "numerous" reports on Barnett's alleged abuse of undocumented immigrants but that it was up to the Cochise County Attorney to decide whether or not to prosecute.

In a March 7, 2004 sheriff's report obtained by AlterNet regarding Barnett's run-in with the undocumented immigrants MALDEF is representing, law enforcement officers point out that Barnett had been avoiding them, despite several attempts to interview him about the incident.

Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer says his office had considered prosecuting Barnett in the past, but ultimately decided his actions were within Arizona state law, which allows the use and threat of deadly force to protect one's property.

"If we get a set of reports from the sheriff's office we review them," says Rheinheimer, who noted that his office had interviewed Ana Maria Vicente. "We take these reports seriously. I can't say we're looking to prosecute, but we're not looking not to prosecute either."

Certainly, Barnett's actions are nothing new in Arizona — over the past five years, he's drawn the ire of immigrant's rights organizations and been lauded by vigilante rancher protection groups alike. Barnett has publicly claimed to have turned over 10,000 undocumented immigrants to the authorities, and insisted all along that he's simply protecting his property from an illegal invasion of people who litter his land with waste.

Barnett says his lawyers were reviewing the recent spate of lawsuits. "I don't have nothing else to comment," he says.

Rob Griffin, spokesman for the Tucson sector of the U.S. Border Patrol would not comment on the Barnett situation either but says the Border Patrol does not support anyone taking the law into their own hands. According to Griffin, the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol apprehended 491,771 undocumented immigrants trying to cross from Mexico into Arizona last year.

Meanwhile, Border Action Network and Jesus Romo are strongly considering filing suit against Cochise County Attorney Rheinheimer for failing to rein in Barnett. They're also planning on lodging a complaint with the Organization of American States' International Commission on Human Rights, as there's no evidence Barnett plans on modifying his approach anytime soon.

"The lawsuits are critical in that we're putting pressure on elected officials who should be prosecuting someone who's clearly breaking the law," says Jennifer Allen. "Barnett has no regard for people's basic dignity, just because of the color of their skin, language they speak, where they're from or where their family is from."

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