Phoenix, Arizona July 15, 2005 — Now that I have returned from France and am again living in Phoenix, Arizona in the USA, I have turned my attention to local politics, but in this case, local politics that could affect the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
On April 10, 2005, Patrick Haab paused at a rest stop along Interstate Highway 8 near the city of Gila Bend, west of Phoenix, Arizona, to walk his dog, where he came across a group of seven illegal immigrants. Haab was carrying a pistol, which he used to hold the immigrants hostage as he telephoned the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. When the sheriff’s deputies arrived, they arrested not only the illegal immigrants but also Mr. Haab.
An investigation revealed that one of the seven illegal immigrants was a “coyote” or human smuggler who was transporting the others, and it is thanks to this fact that Mr. Haab is not facing criminal charges. Illegal immigration is a misdemeanor or minor crime in the United States, but trafficking in human beings is a felony, a much more serious offense. Arizona law permits a citizen to arrest someone who has committed a felony, but not to arrest someone who has committed a misdemeanor.
After reviewing the case against Patrick Haab, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas refused to press charges arguing that Haab did not commit a crime, because one of the people he detained, the coyote, had committed a felony. As to the other six detainees, Thomas argues that by cooperating with the coyote, they conspired to commit the felony and are therefore also felons. The second argument seems farfetched to many people.
Thomas’s decision not to prosecute has raised the ire of human rights groups in the Phoenix area, notably the Maricopa Country Hispanic Bar Association, which goes by the name Los Abogados (http://www.losabogados.org). Abogado is the Spanish word for lawyer. A representative of Los Abogados, attorney Antonio Bustamante, insists that Haab’s detention of the undocumented immigrants was illegal under federal law, and federal law supersedes state law. According to Mr. Bustamante, “The only persons who can enforce [the federal statute against human trafficking] are authorized members of the immigration service, people who are sworn police officers, not private citizens.” Others say that Bustamante’s argument, while correct as far as it goes, would only work in federal court and not in an Arizona court, where Haab would presumably be tried.
I believe that as much as possible should be done to prevent armed citizens from confronting people whom they believe to be illegal border crossers. Private citizens seldom understand the complexities of immigration law. They have no legal right to pull a gun on people whom they believe to be in the country illegally. If they do, they could spend years in prison. These vigilantes create hard feelings and contribute nothing to law enforcement. Their actions are incomprehensible to the residents of countries such as Mexico that have no tradition of citizen enforcement of the law.
However, I also have concerns with Los Abogados in particular and Hispanic pressure groups in general. Far too often these groups show little regard for the facts when they make public pronouncements. For example, Los Abogados claims that the case against Haab is open and shut, which is far from the truth. Any group that self-rightously claims to have the only valid opinion in such a complex case is either out of touch with reality, or more likely, it is pushing a private agenda.
Some Hispanic groups and Spanish-language news organizations in the United States reflexively use the terms “anti-imigrante” (anti-immigrant) and racist to describe any person with whom they disagree. I may be very much in favor of legal immigration (and I am) but if I object to illegal immigration, they may apply those terms to me. These groups would have much more credence if they would acknowledge the distinction between people who enter the U.S. legally and those who thumb their noses at the law
Perhaps Mr. Haab should be prosecuted in Maricopa Country Superior Court to give a judge the opportunity to decide the legal arguments. However, that is unlikely to happen. It is more likely that the people he detained will sue him for damages in civil court. Another possibility is that federal charges will be brought against Mr. Haab for depriving the people he held at gunpoint of their civil rights. Personally, I hope that something will be done to discourage other would-be vigilantes from following Mr. Haab’s example.