From Hanigan to SB 1070: How Arizona Got to Where It Is Today

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A native of Tucson, Arizona, Geraldo Cadava teaches history at Northwestern University. Harvard University Press will publish "The Heat of Exchange," his book about culture and commerce in the Arizona-Sonora border region since World War II.

This article is excerpted from a longer essay to be published by the Immigration Policy Center, the research and policy arm of the American Immigration Council. IPC's materials can be found at www.immigrationpolicy.org.

Exactly thirty-four years ago, on August 18, 1976, white ranchers in southern Arizona kidnapped, tortured, and robbed three Mexican migrants who crossed the border at Douglas on their way to Elfrida, where farm work awaited them.  For the next five years, until trials of the ranchers ended, the incident drew international attention.

This past March, rancher Robert Krentz was murdered just a few miles from where the Hanigans tortured their victims.  While authorities have not arrested any suspects for the crime, allegations that an undocumented immigrant murdered Krentz caused the political firestorm that brought passage of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070. Though it is mostly forgotten, the Hanigan Case, named for the implicated ranchers, occurred at a strikingly similar historical moment, offering important lessons as we once again debate the future of Mexican immigration to the United States.

Manuel García Loya, Eleazar Ruelas Zavala, and Bernabe Herrera—men between the ages of 18 and 25—all held jobs in Mexico, but came north for higher wages.  Their path took them across a ranch owned by the Hanigans.  Thomas and Patrick Hanigan, sons of George Hanigan, spotted the migrants from their pickup truck.  After demanding that the Mexicans explain why they were in the United States, the brothers bound them, forced them into their truck, and drove them out into the fields.  There they beat them, robbed them, hung them from a tree, burned their feet, held a knife to their genitals, and finally cut them loose and told them to run back to Mexico.  As the migrants ran towards the border, the Hanigans fired more than one hundred rounds of birdshot into their backs.

In Agua Prieta, the Mexican border town just across from Douglas, the migrants went straight to a hospital to have their wounds treated.  Doctors reported the incident to Mexican police, who notified the Mexican consul in Douglas.  The consul immediately filed charges against George, Thomas, and Patrick Hanigan.  Many residents of Arizona border communities defended the Hanigans, rejecting the accusations of torture and claiming that their neighbors had only protected their private property.  Meanwhile, immigrant rights advocates, Mexican American civil rights organizations, and government officials in Mexico and the United States decried the incident as evidence of the mistreatment of Mexican migrants in the United States.

Between 1976 and 1981, the Hanigans were tried three times.  George Hanigan died of a heart attack before the first trial but an all-white jury acquitted his sons of torture.  Prosecutors argued that the ranchers violated the civil rights of Mexican workers.  But the court argued that “illegal aliens” had no rights to violate.  When the jury delivered its verdict, the Mexican consul in Douglas famously said the decision “opened the hunting season for every illegal alien who comes into the United States.”

On appeal, a second trial unfolded in 1979 and 1980 at a federal court in Tucson.  Picketers marched outside the courthouse and threats of rioting spread across the city.  When the jury announced that it could not reach a verdict, thereby acquitting the Hanigans for a second time, U.S. prosecutor Mike Hawkins observed that the decision had a “chilling effect” on race relations in the border region.

The Department of Justice quickly announced its plan to prosecute the Hanigans again.  The third trial was held in Phoenix because U.S. District Judge Richard Bilby, noting the “deep, bitter divisions within the community,” believed that Tucson would not be neutral.  The jury this time found Patrick Hanigan guilty, but acquitted Thomas Hanigan for a third time.  Many saw Patrick Hanigan’s sentence to only three years in prison as shamefully merciful given the severity of his crimes, but most aggravating was that it took three trials to achieve even partial justice.

In a final ironic twist, only a few weeks after the jury acquitted Thomas Hanigan, Arizona authorities charged him with possessing and transporting 574 pounds of marijuana.  Hanigan supporters had cited rampant drug smuggling by Mexicans to support their arguments for tighter border enforcement.  It must have unsettled them that Thomas Hanigan committed such a crime himself.

Like SB 1070, the Hanigan Case played out against a backdrop of a national debate on immigration.  Since the early 1970s, U.S. legislators had contemplated comprehensive immigration reform.  In 1972, as the centerpiece of a reform proposal that failed to gain approval in Congress, Democrat Peter Rodino of New Jersey suggested sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented migrants.  Five years later, President Carter proposed his Alien Adjustment and Employment Act of 1977.  Carter incorporated Rodino’s employer sanctions into his bill, which also increased the size of the border patrol while offering amnesty provisions that proposed to adjust the citizenship status of millions of migrants.  Critics on the left opposed employer sanctions, believing they would lead to discrimination against Mexican American workers.  Critics on the right would not tolerate amnesty for migrants who had broken U.S. laws.  With opposition coming from both sides, Congress defeated Carter’s plan.

It took nine more years for legislators to pass the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), a mildly revised version of earlier plans that also included employer sanctions, increased border enforcement, and amnesty provisions.  While politicians have lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform at several moments during the past quarter century, IRCA remains the last comprehensive overhaul.

During the 1970s, like today, rising numbers of undocumented migrants and economic insecurity prompted calls for immigration reform.  The population of Mexican migrants increased steadily after the end of the Bracero Program in 1964; the Immigration Act of 1965; and the establishment in 1965 of the Border Industrialization Program (BIP).  By the mid-1980s, the BIP had constructed more than 1,000 maquiladoras between Tijuana and Matamoros and lured hundreds of companies and more than 300,000 Mexican workers—80 to 90 percent of them women—to cities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

With almost one hundred factories in Nogales and Agua Prieta alone, Sonora became one of the largest maquiladora sites.  Despite their long hours and sometimes violently exploitative work environment, maquiladoras enticed hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers to the border.  From there, many entered the United States in search of work.

Like today, economic downturn made the presence of Mexican migrants within U.S. borders particularly controversial.  During the 1970s, the culprits were national worries about stagflation and decreasing oil supplies.  Two separate peso devaluations by the Mexican government in 1976 cut the peso’s value by 50 percent, causing a rising cost of goods, capital flight, and increased import costs.  These effects hampered the economies of U.S. border cities as well.  Many Mexican consumers could no longer afford to shop in the United States.  As a Nogales department store owner put it, Mexican shoppers were “in no buying mood.”

Americans contending with the downturn were in no welcoming mood.  Discrimination and violence against Mexicans and Mexican Americans escalated, leading to episodes like the Hanigan Case.  Today, SB 1070 represents another discriminatory displacement of economic crisis not only onto Mexican migrants, but onto all individuals of Mexican descent as well.

Southern Arizona became the location of widespread persecution in the 1970s.  Burglaries there prompted accusations that all Mexican migrants were thieves.  The Hanigans’ defense, in fact, rested on their argument that they detained the migrants because, earlier that summer, they caught them stealing pistols from their ranch house.  As if to support the Hanigans, newspapers published articles suggesting the inherent criminality of Mexicans.  The Douglas sheriff himself said, “Most of our problems have come from Mexico.”  Ariz. Governor Jan Brewer recently made similarly defenseless claims, arguing that a “majority” of Mexican migrants are drug smugglers.

Threats of violence against Mexicans—if not actual violence—characterized the Arizona border region of the 1970s, as they do today.  Men and women wielded guns and vowed to use them to defend themselves and their property.  The KKK seized the moment to bring their campaigns of exclusion to the Arizona border.  In the wake of the Hanigan incident, David Duke sent Klan members to patrol the border and hunt for undocumented Mexicans.  Such actions during the late 1970s were precursors to the vigilante organizations operating in Arizona today.

Civil rights organizations met the violent rhetoric of vigilante organizations with increased demands for migrant rights.  The Manzo Area Council and the National Ad Hoc Coalition on the Hanigan Case played particularly prominent roles in bringing public attention to the incident.

The Manzo Area Council, an immigrant rights organization based in Tucson, decried acquittal of the Hanigans as “a violent precedent of sanctioned aggression against … the whole Chicano people in the Southwest.”  After the judgment, members organized a boycott of border merchants.  One of their signs read, “Boycott!  Mexicans Unite!  Don’t shop in U.S. border cities until justice is served in the Hanigan Case!”  The organization also called for a “bill of rights” for all immigrants, regardless of citizenship status, which aimed to protect against violent acts like those committed by the Hanigans.  The organization’s tactics demonstrated a shift in immigrant rights advocacy that continues into the present:  the persistent claim that immigrant rights are human rights.

For its part, the National Ad Hoc Coalition on the Hanigan Case—formed in November 1977, just one month after the first trial—brought together several Mexican American civil rights organizations to protest the court’s decision.  Started by Antonio Bustamante, a law student originally from Douglas, the coalition spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to state and federal officials, asking them to intervene on behalf of the Mexican workers.

Why should we remember the Hanigan Case now, as we consider the future of Arizona’s SB 1070 and comprehensive immigration reform in general?  Foremost, Arizona politicians seeking to gain traction with voters in their state, while at the same time broadcasting their message to the nation as a whole, have sought to portray the state of affairs in Arizona as an emergency caused by a crashing wave of undocumented immigrants.  But perhaps it is Americans’ general aversion to history, or the myopia of our short-term memory, a condition caused by a deluge of opinions and rapidly shifting news cycles, that has blinded us to how the present situation in Arizona evolved over a period of forty years.

The Hanigan Case suggests a whole other set of lessons as well.  First, it reminds us that Mexican migrants are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators.  Second, it demonstrates the strong correlation between recession and anti-immigrant sentiment.  On this point, it should come as no surprise that politicians now seek to divert attention from their own political failures and shortsightedness by blaming Mexicans. Third, the Hanigan Case shows that vigilante activism in Arizona is not the domain of a few extremists who have found a home there only since Chris Simcox moved to Tombstone.  From the KKK to the Minutemen, exclusionary vigilantes have a rich tradition in southern Arizona. Finally, Arizona also has an equally impressive tradition of civil rights activism.  Individuals including Isabel García, Margo Cowan, Guadalupe Castillo, and John Fife—through their leadership of the Manzo Area Council, the Sanctuary Movement, No More Deaths, and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos—have struggled from the 1970s onward to achieve fair and humane treatment of immigrants.

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Bill Heuisler - 8/29/2010

Thank you again for agreeing with me so vociferously. Your passion for verity is admirable.

I must caution you, however, on your misuse of the word,"white". White has lost all meaning for political or cultural discussion (as has "black") since only albinos are nearly white and only the African from Central Africa or the Madrasi from South Central India are nearly black.

Mexican people tend to a mixture of Indian and Spanish blood, depending on their geographic and economic status. Most Mexicans are no more brown than Floridians like Charlie Crist or Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn. Calling Americans white and Mexicans brown is insultingly simplistic.

And designating people by color for political reasons is too unsensitive and unconversant for an enlightened and friendly person like you.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/29/2010

Oh, sure - white (American) folks are always Right (pun on words intended!), no matter what they do... to non-white folks.
As for the vice versa actions, those are outrageous, murderous, monstrous, etc.
And that obsolete double jeopardy British clause, which I believe is honored in just several countries around the world, should have been abolished long time ago, since it prevents justice to be rendered and helps violent criminals to beat the rap. Moreover so, because it was created to protect the British aristocracy above all and begin with.

Bill Heuisler - 8/28/2010

Mr. Todd,
There are facts the U.S. must deal with - like them or not - One fact is the presence in our country of millions of hard-working, patriotic people who are here illegally. The sons and daughters of these people have joined our military for years and served honorably in order to get cotizenship. I've served with many.

The Dream Act (DA)builds on this fact.

I approve of using taxpayer dollars to educate certain illegal immigrant children in U.S. public schools. Specifically, if young Mexican Americans want to finish (already begun) education through additional schooling - or through the military - they should be allowed to become citizens under clearly stated rules.

Probably most important for us to remember is the fact that the DA benefits only those brought into the U.S. by parents through no decision of their own. These young people are Americans in everything but the courts (they must be English-speakers under the DA) and simply certifying reality through due process is a good thing for everyone.

Last, the parents of these soldiers and students must be given some provisional reason for being allowed to stay and seek citizenship of their own. Once all this becomes law and on the record, everyone involved will have good reason to be happy.

Recognize that the DA will only succeed with families and parents, however, if the uncontrolled stream of illegals is halted at the border as soon as possible. Why would anyone go on the Federal record to achieve citizenship if they didn't have a good reason?
Bill Heuisler

Andrew D. Todd - 8/28/2010

I would be interested in your comments on this article, published about five years ago. I dug out a couple of follow-up articles, and one of these four kids just completed his engineering degree. What is your stance on the proposed DREAM act?
Joshua Davis, "La Vida Robot: How four underdogs from the mean streets of Phoenix took on the best from M.I.T. in the national underwater bot championship," Wired Magazine, April 2005

Richard Ruelas, "For Carl Hayden robotics team, beating immigration is tougher than beating the competition," The Arizona Republic, Jul. 31, 2008

Gary Francisco Keller Ph.D., "Student lives damaged, national resources squandered: ASU graduate Oscar Vasquez is just one of thousands."


Bill Heuisler - 8/26/2010

People like John Fife and the group called "No more deaths" have gotten TV time for years by doing really slow-witted things like acclaiming illegals in church and setting up water stations in the desert.

It must not occur to them (and the author of this piece) that the act of encouraging people to attempt one of the most deadly passages in the world is wrong. Encouraging men, women and children to cross a desert makes them accessories in thousands of deaths.

In a more perfect world they would be held accountable for enticing the innocent to slow, horrible deaths.

Elements in the prosecution would be pictures of hundreds of bodies (many mothers holding young children in a last, pathetic attempt to protect them) over dozens of years, pictured in many newspapers and TV news shows.

Apparently "do-gooders" are unable to project beyond their conceit.

Grant W Jones - 8/26/2010

Well said, Bill. HNN is really going downhill into just another fount of liberal political propaganda. For some strange reason the author of this drivel has to reach back to a crime that occurred 34 years ago. Meanwhile, murders, drug running and kidnappings are happening every day at the border.

Pandora Bracelet - 8/24/2010

Good article!!!Pandora Bracelet

Bill Heuisler - 8/23/2010

Mr. Cadava,
You left out important facts and failed to mention other facts that would give the reader a more balanced account of our situation here on the Arizona border with Mexico.

First, some perspective: HNN readers should know that illegally crossing the other way (into Mexico) means imprisonment without trial in some of the worst jails I have ever seen and (on the Southern Mexican border) being summarily shot.

Your brief mention of the murder of Arizona rancher, Robert Krentz, shows your contempt for the truth and for those ranchers whose proprerty and rights have been literally trampled for many years by illegal trespass.
Mr. Krentz was shot in the back. His dog was also shot. Prior to the shooting he called a friend to tell him he was going to help people in trouble at one of his water tanks.
Krentz was murdered by a person whose tracks went back south across the border. Krentz was on his own land. He was trying to help someone and he deserves more than casual mention.

Then there's the matter of trying people for political reasons until you get the verdict you want. The Hanigans were tried and acquitted once; then tried and the jury hung; then they were tried a third time on the Hobbs Act (Federal Title 18, Section 1951, Interferance with Interstate Commerce) by two different juries in Phoenix - 200 miles away from the scene - and Thomas was acquitted while Patrick was found guilty. A little odd? Does double jeopardy and triple jeopardy make any other American - Hispanic or Anglo - feel safe?

And you, Mr. Cadava, are outraged about the Hanigan case? No one died on the Hanigan ranch, but thousands die in the Southwest Deserts, mules for dope dealers or looking for work, it doesn't matter, they still die.

But your answer to all those deaths is to stir up Anglo-Mexican hatreds with misinformation and to oppose a well regulated border that would save lives. Most of us who have lived here for many years don't consider this to be a racial/ethnic problem - we've been intermarrying for generations, and half our law enforcement have Hispanic names.

This Arizona problem is a law breaking problem, and the sooner you Aztlan political types butt the hell out, the sooner we'll get some lives saved, some peace and quiet, and maybe some justice for the innocent who are being preyed on by the coyotes and the drug runners.

Bill Heuisler