Border Fight

Murdered Rancher Who Helped Immigrants Spurred on Arizona Law

PROTESTING. Protesters hold their hands up in prayer May 1 during a demonstration against Arizona's new immigration law outside the state Capitol in Phoenix.
PROTESTING. Protesters hold their hands up in prayer May 1 during a demonstration against Arizona's new immigration law outside the state Capitol in Phoenix. (photo: CNS photo/J.D. Long-Garcia, Catholic Sun)

DOUGLAS, Ariz. — Ambushed by a suspected drug smuggler on March 27 as he worked an isolated corner of his 35,000-acre cattle ranch, Robert Krentz became the symbol of the violence that illegal border crossing is inflicting on the people who live along Arizona’s border with Mexico.

The Cochise County rancher’s murder galvanized public support for S.B. 1070, the Arizona Senate’s tough anti-illegal immigrant bill. Public outrage at the shooting was enough to win the bill a majority in both houses of the Arizona Legislature and receive Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature, which transformed it into the state’s controversial new law.

That supporters of the legislation selected Krentz as a symbol and focal point for that outrage was an ironic choice. An overflow crowd of more than 1,200 friends, relatives and local and state dignitaries from both sides of the border, led by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, attended his memorial service. They remembered a man with compassion for anyone, including illegal migrants, in need of his help.

Father Bob Carney, the longtime pastor of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in the southeastern Arizona border town of Douglas, where Krentz and his family were parishioners, said Krentz was always ready to assist any migrants who got into trouble on their trip north. When the migrants were hungry, he provided them with food and when they were thirsty, he gave them water.

“He was a good and a gentle man,” Father Carney said, “and he helped where he could.”

Father Carney said he wasn’t surprised that the smugglers, who use the immigrants as their cover, probably killed Krentz. Drug cartels, he said, “are completely unscrupulous. They use any opportunity to further their own interests.”

Krentz helped ranchers south of the border who were threatened by the gangs, such as Hector Ortega, who attended Krentz’s memorial. “He knew the cartels don’t care about human life,” said Father Carney.
Father Carney said, “Since 1995, when the Border Patrol tightened the blockade at El Paso and San Diego and forced the immigrants into the Sonoran Desert, he saw the increase in the violence from the cartels. He saw that everyone was caught in a vise.”

The bill that Krentz’s death helped propel is called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. It was introduced by state Sen. Russell Pearce, the Republican representative for District 18 in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.

The legislation makes it a misdemeanor to be unable to provide government-issued identification proving legal residency, such as a driver’s license, tribal enrollment, state identification card or military identification card. It makes it a crime, punishable by a fine of at least $500 and up to six months in jail, to be an illegal alien living in or traveling through Arizona. S.B. 1070 also requires law enforcement officers to require proof of legal residency from anyone they have reason to suspect is not legally in the state.

When Government Leaves a Void

The law also forbids anyone from hiring day laborers from a street corner — a traditional means for seeking employment without identification — or helping, in any way, in the transport, housing or concealing of illegal immigrants. Violators are subject to vehicle confiscation and felony prosecution.

It is the third law of its type approved by Arizona’s legislators. The first, approved in 2006, makes it a state crime for any employer to hire workers without proper documents.

The second, approved in 2008, makes it a crime to provide any government-funded services, including school enrollment and medical treatment, to anyone without proof of citizenship.

The new law, along with the previous efforts, has drawn condemnation from advocacy groups and individual Catholic bishops but enjoys broad public support. A Rasmussen poll, commissioned by The Arizona Republic newspaper, reported that 60% of Americans favor S.B. 1070. The approval rises to 70% among Arizona residents.

Response from law enforcement agencies has been mixed. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix called the law “just what we needed,” but Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnick in Tucson condemned it for making people afraid to talk to law enforcement, which undermines community-policing efforts, and putting the burden on local police to enforce federal rather than local laws. “It’s the worst [law-enforcement legislation] I’ve seen in 50 years,” he said.

“It’s what happens when the federal government leaves a void,” said Bryan Griffith, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

There are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., almost half from Mexico, and an estimated 500,000 living in Arizona.

Griffith said that no matter how many legal immigrants the U.S. lets in, it could never be enough. “You have to draw a line somewhere,” he said. “As long as the federal policy is to have a 100-mile buffer with the Border Patrol — and if you can get through that, you can get a home, a job, a bank account and bring your family to join you while you wait for amnesty to become a citizen — then the U.S. won’t have an immigration policy that works.”

Griffith said other states are watching.

“I don’t see 50 other sets of rules coming,” he said, “but if the Arizona law is upheld as constitutional, and it’s effective, and Congress doesn’t act, other states will follow Arizona’s lead.”

‘A Step Backwards’

That’s what concerns Bishop Kicanas. In his “Monday Memo” to the Diocese of Tucson, the bishop said he was asking the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to file a “friend of the court” brief in connection with any legal challenges to the law.

Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the Committee on Migration for the bishops’ conference, agreed, issuing a statement opposing S.B. 1070. He warned that the bill would lead to “the rise in fear and distrust in immigrant communities.”

It will do that without addressing the “critical need for border security to confront drug smugglers, weapons smuggling and human trafficking,” Bishop Kicanas wrote. “It sends the wrong message about how our state regards the importance of civil rights.”

The law also does nothing to stem the migration, said Erica Dahl-Bredine, country manager for Catholic Relief Services in Mexico. “S.B. 1070 is a step backwards.”

Dahl-Bredine said the migration is fueled by the push from Mexico’s struggling economy, especially in the southern states where jobs are scarce, and the pull from U.S. employers, who need workers.

“It doesn’t help national security to have people running through the desert in the middle of the night or to have 11 million people living in the shadows,” she said. “Contributing to their sense of insecurity, fearing they’ll be deported at any time, doesn’t help either.”

“What we need is significant reform of our immigration policy, recognizing that half the growth in the U.S. labor force is immigrant labor. It’s the key to recovery of our economy,” Dahl-Bredine said.

Ultimately, it’s about the individuals who are suffering, said Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Ariz., and across the border in Nogales, Sonora. The Kino Border Initiative cares for approximately 200 to 250 people at a time, who are dropped off at the border with nothing more than the clothes they are wearing and money in their pockets.

Father Carroll said he would like to see legislation in keeping with the policies outlined by the pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer” that was published by the U.S. bishops’ conference. “We want to see a path to legalization, a guest-worker program with adequate protection for workers’ rights, respect for due process, and reform of immigration law to reunite families. We would also like to see economic development and reform in Mexico and Central America, so people aren’t forced to migrate to find a better life.”

However, Father Carroll said it’s not just about laws. It’s about “seeing the crisis in the light of Catholic social teaching. Once you can walk with these migrants and learn about the reality of migration, you can approach the problem in a different way, and in that you will find the solution.”

Philip Moore writes from Vail, Arizona.