Roger Barnett, an Arizona rancher who claims he has turned over 12,000 illegal immigrants to the Border Patrol since 1998, has been sued by sixteen illegal immigrants he detained, allegedly at gunpoint, on his ranch.
The Washington Times described the circumstances giving rise to the suit:
"The lawsuit is based on a March 7, 2004, incident in a dry wash on the 22,000-acre ranch, when he approached a group of illegal immigrants while carrying a gun and accompanied by a large dog.
Attorneys for the immigrants - five women and 11 men who were trying to cross illegally into the United States - have accused Mr. Barnett of holding the group captive at gunpoint, threatening to turn his dog loose on them and saying he would shoot anyone who tried to escape."
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which asks for $32 million in actual and punitive damages for civil rights violations, infliction of emotional distress, as well as other crimes.
Some see Roger Barnett as "an American hero" who has fought to "protect his property for years" and has aided the apprehension of thousands of illegal aliens. On the other side of the debate, open border advocates and civil rights groups feel that individuals such as Barnett are vigilantes who often end up violating individuals' civil rights.
Notably, this is not the first time Barnett has faced legal consequences for his immigration enforcement actions. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted that, in 2006, "border vigilante Roger Barnett [was ordered] to pay $98,750 to a family of Mexican-Americans he terrorized in 2004". In that case, a jury ruled against Barnett for threatening two Mexican-American hunters and three young children with an assault rifle and insulting them with racial epithets. Unlike the present case, all members of the family in that case were Mexican-Americans born in the United States. The court in the current case, however, indicated that illegal immigrants do not leave all legal protections at the border in rejecting defense attorney David Hardy's arguments that illegal immigrants do not have the same rights as U.S. citizens.
This is noteworthy because Arizona law allows the use of physical and even deadly force to prevent the commission of certain serious crimes, and also allows for a person to use physical force against another when and to the extent that a "reasonable person" would believe it necessary to prevent criminal trespass on their premises, or to prevent theft or criminal damage to certain property. Barnett has complained for years about illegal immigrants vandalizing his property, saying they "tore up water pumps, killed calves, destroyed fences and gates, stole trucks and broke into his home."
Nevertheless, a violation of individuals' federal constitutional rights would trump any justifications afforded by state law, and might explain why this matter is going to trial. Regardless of whether Barnett is seen as a "hero" or "vigilante", and regardless of how this lawsuit progresses, the more urgent reality is that there are very risks of life for all parties involved in these situations, as Arizona has becomes a more of a central hub in illegal immigration and drug trade.