Do Illegal Immigrants Have More Rights Than Americans? The Case of John Petrello

See also Glynn Custred's Alien Crossings

Chilton Williamson's Amazing…What?.

The hamlet of Whetstone, Arizona is not large enough to be included on my Rand McNally roadmap of the state. The locale is familiar to me though, lying between Benson and Sierra Vista where mesquite deserts alternate with sky islands formed by knifeblade mountain ridges covered by pine and oak. In winter, migratory birds from Latin and South America flock in the region. Summer and winter, it throngs with another kind of visitor: nonfeathered bipedals from south of the international border thirty or so miles away, men, women, and children wearing huaraches and carrying backpacks on their surreptitious arrival in the United States.

For decades, the desert between Naco and Douglas, Arizona and the mountainous country between Douglas and Cloverdale, New Mexico have been busy crossing points for drug smugglers and "ordinary" illegal aliens. Since the Border Patrol cracked down on the major southwestern migrant thoroughfares of Tijuana, Tucson, and El Paso in the 1990s, the volume of human traffic coming through the vicinity of Douglas in Cochise County has increased dramatically, to the consternation of residents whose land is crisscrossed by trails worn by tens of thousands of scurrying feet, their dogs killed, their property damaged. According to J. Zane Walley, writing for WorldNetDaily  (October 19, 2001),

The foot traffic is so heavy that the backcountry has the ambience of a garbage dump and smells like an outdoor privy. In places, the land is littered a foot deep with bottles, cans, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, panties, clothes, backpacks, human feces, used toilet paper, pharmacy bottles and syringes (the drug runners inject stimulants to keep their energy up).

Added to the smell of privy is the smell of fear. Unsolved murders and arsons are common. Citizens acting in self-defense worry about retaliation by coyotes smuggling people and "narco-militarists" running drugs.

For the past few years some of these citizens, many of them ranchers, have cooperated with the Border Patrol in a self-defense effort: accosting the illegal immigrant invaders, making citizens' arrests in conformity with Arizona law, and holding the detainees until the agents show up. In spite of outcries from all the predictable sources (immigration advocacy groups, the Mexican government, the INS, and The Nation magazine, all of which regard these latter-day minutemen as racist xenophobic vigilantes), the strategy has proved effective.

John Petrello of Whetstone had been aiding the Border Patrol for the past couple of years, detaining illegal immigrants headed north to Interstate 10, sometimes on a beeline across his property. So he wasn't especially surprised when, at 8:30 on the morning of September 23, 2001, a Sunday, his friend Phil Mathews burst into the house to tell him fourteen aliens had been dropped off by coyotes almost in his back yard. John shouted at his wife to call the Patrol. While Dorothy put the call through, he and Phil approached the party with leveled guns.

Not long before, John had been forced to fire warning shots ahead of a band of twelve backpacked Mexicans running at his pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter. Fearing the men were drug mules, he had got between them and his family, yelling, "¡Alto!" They kept advancing and he fired nine rounds into the ground ahead of them, causing one of the men to flee. When the eleven refused to halt, John placed a few shots much closer to them.

"I didn't want to kill anybody," he says. "But I needed them to know I was serious. They stopped this time and we looked at one another and I pointed the pistol straight into them. They left at that point."

This morning, when the aliens saw John and Phil coming at them, they ran from his property across the road onto land belonging to a neighbor. The two men told the Mexican party to stop, get down on the ground, and lie there. "¿Hablan inglés?" they demanded. But nobody knew English, or admitted to knowing any.

As the Arizonans were keeping the group covered, a car riding low down on its springs beneath the weight of a second group of illegals drove up, their coyote at the wheel. While John kept a watch on the first party, Phil detained the new arrivals.

Between them, the two men stood guard now over about 26 illegal immigrants as they waited for the Border Patrol. The agents politely requested John and Phil to make out a report on the incident (agents of the U.S. Border Patrol are almost invariably polite). Then they left, taking their prisoners with them.

All things considered, this citizens' apprehension seemed a smoother operation than the previous one, when John had been forced to fire his gun and Dorothy was compelled to call 911 rather than the Border Patrol. In that instance, after the cops claimed to lack jurisdiction to deal with illegal aliens, the BP agents showed up, assured John they considered his a legal defense action, and put him on file with regard to the incident. So both men were surprised as well as disturbed when at 2:30 that afternoon they met a Cochise County sheriff's deputy named Julia Francis driving her patrol car on Redwing Street, a dirt lane immediately off the Petrellos' road.

Deputy Francis was polite, but firm. The aliens arrested that morning, she informed him, were suing John for violation of their civil rights, after lodging a complaint with Miguel Escobar Valdez, the Mexican consul in Douglas. He could be subject to arrest in coming days. As Escobar told it, when he asked them whether they had felt threatened by two men with drawn guns giving orders in a foreign language, they had replied with the Spanish equivalent of, "Hell yes—absolutely!" The Cochise County attorney, Francis added, planned to investigate whether the aliens had a legal case against John Petrello of Whetstone, Arizona. He was to be served with papers soon, apprising him of his legal situation.

The deputy then questioned Petrello about Phil Mathews' role. Petrello answered that Matthews could speak for himself. She threatened to handcuff Petrello on the spot and was dissuaded from doing so only by Mathews himself providing the details she requested.

Local reaction to Petrello and Mathews' "vigilantism" has been generally sympathetic. Roger Barnett, a rancher who has worked with the Border Patrol for years in detaining illegal aliens, called John to assure him that Miguel Escobar regularly tries to intimidate property owners on the American side of the border, "but you didn't fall for it." The Sierra Times, an Internet publication to which Petrello contributes, noted that, "two Cochise County men may soon have to pay a price for what many would consider a civic duty. Apparently stopping an illegal encroachment across a national border can get you in a lot of trouble." A spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Department told a reporter for the Sierra Vista Herald Review that, while it is entirely normal for the county attorney to investigate a case where guns are drawn and leveled, previous incidents in which citizens have detained alien illegals at gunpoint have not resulted in charges being filed.

However, the sheriff's office had yet to notify John Petrello that the aliens' suit against him had been dropped, or that he was off the legal hook as far as Cochise County was concerned. There was nothing for him to do, it seemed, but wait. While waiting, he also contacted VDARE.COM.

My guess on hearing Petrello's story was that some leftwing immigration lawyer out of Tucson, and not the Mexican consulate, had encouraged the Mexicans to bring suit. The Sierra Times, however, reported that the suit was filed with the help of the consul himself. So I phoned Miguel Escobar and asked him directly whether he were behind the lawsuit and, if so, whether the plaintiffs intended to follow through with their action.

Señor Escobar is a well-spoken and refined gentleman, speaking perfect English. No, he said, there was no suit in the works, nor had his office played a role in encouraging one. "The migrants involved," he said, "were deported and are either back in Mexico, or—as I fear—may have recrossed the border into the United States again."

I had to suspect the consul was being disingenuous in expressing fear that these illegal immigrants had made it into the U.S. But I felt I had no reason to resent him. His job is to look after his own people, not to look out for the interests of the United States of America. Only Americans and their government can do that.

We chatted briefly about the striking desert country around Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta directly across the international line (I've drunk many cold cervesas in preference to the muddy water there), and said Adiós.

Something in all this didn't add up and that something, I thought, was Sheriff's Deputy Julia Francis. The Department spokeswoman, Carol Capas, had told the press that charges had not been filed in previous incidents similar to that involving John Petrello. So why wasn't Deputy Francis aware of that fact? Or, if she was, why had she given Petrello the impression that he was in danger of being arraigned before the International Court in the Hague?

I picked up the phone again and learned from the dispatcher that Julia Francis was working night shift that week. I told her I had questions concerning the Petrello case and hoped Deputy Francis could answer them for me. The dispatcher took my number and said the deputy would be happy to return my call. She did call back—once, while I was out. The phone-tag game ended following my return call.

Both Petrello and I were assuming the charges to have been either nonexistent, or dropped. In which case, why hadn't John been notified of the fact? Only a few days later, I received email from him informing me that the long-awaited paperwork had arrived at last. I phoned, and we went over the document together. Petrello, it seemed, had not been "served" with anything. Rather he'd been cc'd with the narrative police report of an "incident."  But he and Phil Mathews were conscientiously referred to throughout as the "suspects," and the illegal alien trespassers as the "victims." The report, of course, detailed events as they were recalled by Deputy Julia Francis. Missing was any mention of Consul Escobar, a threatened lawsuit on the part of the aliens, and Deputy Francis's threat to handcuff Petrello, who remains perplexed by the entire episode.

"Everything that I was told is different from the paperwork I got," he told me.  Why, he wondered, when he called the police in the first trespassing instance did they refuse to come out, while when the illegal aliens complained to Consul Escobar—assuming they really did complain—did he receive a visit from a deputy in a patrol car? Petrello's answer: illegal aliens have more rights in America, apparently, than American citizens do.

John Petrello's adventure, routine as it may have been within the context of Cochise County life - up to the advent of Deputy Francis, that is – has, in hindsight, a touching innocence. No doubt because his detainees were Mexicanos, Petrello assumed them to be simply "undocumented aliens," at worst drug mules. Although the disputed detention occurred on September 23, twelve days after the attacks in New York and Washington, the possibility that he was confronting terrorists seems not to have occurred to him.

But the fact is that Arabs have been coming across the Arizona border for many years now. A Border Patrol supervisory agent told Zane Walley that "about one in ten [illegals] we catch is from a country like Yemen or Egypt." Walley writes,

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, hours after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an anonymous caller led Mexican immigration agents to 41 undocumented Iraqis waiting to cross into the United States. The Associated Press reported that Mexican immigration police detained 13 citizens of Yemen on Sept. 24, 2001, who were reportedly waiting to cross the border into Arizona. The Yemenis were arrested …in Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas….   …Agua Prieta police officials [were quoted] as identifying the 13 Yemenis as terrorists. Reportedly, the Mexican immigration police returned the Yemenis to a federal detention center near Mexico City, but new information would indicate that they were "released" and returned to Agua Prieta.

On October 19, Carlos X. Carillo, assistant chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, told WorldNetDaily of nine Yemenis lodged in an Agua Prieta hotel. The report was confirmed by a field agent who, speaking anonymously, said, 

"They can't get a coyote to transport them and they are offering $30,000 per person with no takers. What kind of Yemeni group has $270,000 to pay a low-life 20-year-old border vulture to lead them into the United States?"

Al-Quaida's sleeper cell in Phoenix, where operatives prepared the 9-11 attack for nine years, obviously had plenty of money, in addition to American rights—and the hatred they had for these. 

The question is how much longer the U.S. can count on patriots like John Petrello – and whether it deserves him.

Chilton Williamson Jr. is the author of The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience and an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes the The Hundredth Meridian column about life in the Rocky Mountain West.

November 09, 2001