As the number of undocumented Hispanic workers grows in communities throughout America, a violent backlash takes hold through vigilante action and legislated anti-immigrant sentiment.
Five years ago, the tale of Roger and Don Barnett was everywhere. Virtually every major news outlet, from network and cable television channels to the leading newspapers and newsweeklies, described how the brothers, frustrated with illegal immigrants crossing their Arizona border ranchlands, rounded up thousands of men and women at gunpoint and turned them over to immigration authorities.
The coverage was sympathetic. The brothers were frequently depicted in downright heroic terms, as two men struggling against a human tide that was leaving fences cut and property littered.
What was almost totally ignored in the national news reports were quiet but persistent complaints that the Barnetts and others like them were actually bigoted, dangerous vigilantes. Even the accounts of U.S. citizens, allegedly stopped at gunpoint on public roads, were forgotten.
In late November, a lawsuit was filed that threw a different light on the Barnetts. Five U.S. citizens, including three girls between 9 and 11, alleged that Roger Barnett, accompanied by his brother and wife, used racial slurs, pointed a loaded and cocked AR-15 rifle at them, and threatened to shoot.
A deputy sheriff's report said that the group, a family of four and an 11-year-old friend, were hunting deer when they were confronted by Barnett on what they thought were public lands. Barnett cursed the family and was "extremely agitated and angry," it said.
The deputy cited Roger Barnett for eight felony counts of aggravated assault and 10 misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and intimidation. At press time, Cochise County officials were reviewing the case for possible prosecution. In the past, the county has seemed extremely reluctant to press similar charges.
From Arizona to Georgia
The Barnetts, of course, are innocent unless and until proven guilty. But their case is a stark reminder of a growing national problem: the often-violent backlash that has developed against immigrants, especially those with darker skin.
In this issue, the Intelligence Report takes a hard look at the immigration backlash on another front — Georgia, one of the Southeastern states that have seen unprecedented levels of demographic change in the last decade (see The Battle of 'Georgiafornia'). Day laborers, in particular, have become the victims of a wave of criminal violence in the northern part of the state, and the situation seems to be growing worse by the day.
"The kids who committed these crimes had grown up listening to people saying that Hispanic people were lower forms of life," Tisha Tillman, Southeast regional director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told Report writer Bob Moser.
"We know what kind of effect that rhetoric has. Day laborers are the canaries in the coal mines for immigrant communities. ... When they're being targeted, you know there's something seriously wrong."
Nativist reaction to Hispanic immigration has not been limited to vigilantes. Ordinary Americans, often prodded by the ugly rhetoric of hate groups and their allies, are increasingly joining in the hue and cry.
Proposition 200 and Beyond
In early November, voters in Arizona passed a harsh referendum aimed at undocumented workers by a 56% margin — despite the nearly universal opposition of their political, business and opinion leaders. Even the revelation that the highest profile activist behind the referendum had brought in a known white supremacist to head her national advisory board didn't seem to bother voters.
Proposition 200 requires proof of citizenship to vote or to apply for any "state [or] local benefit" — a phrase that could mean everything from food stand permits to library cards to housing assistance. Most remarkably, it threatens state workers with fines and four months in jail if they fail to inform federal officials of any non-citizen applying for such benefits.
As a practical matter, critics predict that the law will lead to singling out Hispanics for constant public challenges to their citizenship.
Proposition 200 was almost immediately stayed by a federal judge, who warned that it could have "a dramatic, chilling effect upon undocumented aliens who would otherwise be eligible for public benefits under federal law."
But that didn't kill the thrill that referendum results sent through anti-immigration activists around the country. Already, efforts are under way in four states — California, Colorado, Idaho and Georgia — to pass legislation similar to that in Arizona.
Such laws will almost certainly exacerbate the "us and them" mentality that often leads to violence. And that could affect many people, including 9-year-old Angelique Morales, still terrified by her encounter with the Barnetts.
"I feel angry, scared, shocked, worried and confused," said the little girl whose dad is a six-year U.S. Navy veteran. "I feel scared because I thought we were going to die."