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Supreme Court rules Mexican parents can't sue US Border Patrol agent who killed their son

The 15-year-old Mexican national was playing with three friends in the concrete culvert that separates El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Mexico, when the incident occurred in 2010.

Supreme Court rules Mexican parents can't sue US Border Patrol agent who killed their son
Cover Image Source: Exterior of Supreme Court of the United States on First Street in Washington DC, USA with statue by James Earle Fraser titled Authority of Law (1935) (Getty Images/Richard Sharrocks)

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the parents of a 15-year-old who was shot to death in Mexico by a US Border Patrol agent standing on American soil cannot sue the agent in US courts for damages. This decision—delivered for the 2010 incident that inflamed tensions over border security—will now make it harder for individuals to sue federal officers when their constitutional rights are violated. However, the ruling comes as a win for the agent involved and the United States government, who have long argued that the case should not be allowed to go forward.

 



 

 

Tuesday's ruling was also a huge blow to Jesus Hernandez and Maria Guadalupe Guereca—the parents of Sergio Hernandez Guereca, who was on the Mexico side when a Border Patrol agent fatally shot him from the U.S. side of the boundary separating El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Mexico. According to NBC News, the 15-year-old Mexican national was playing with three friends in the concrete culvert that separates the two cities when the incident occurred. The international border runs down the middle of the culvert. Hernandez's parents claim their son and the others were playing a game where they dared each other to cross the unmarked border, run up and touch the fence on the U.S. side, then run back to the Mexican side.

 



 

 

According to court documents, Jesus Mesa Jr., the Border Patrol agent, arrived on the scene when the boys were on the El Paso side and managed to detain one for illegal border crossing, reports NPR. However, when Hernandez ran back across into Mexico, Mesa reportedly drew his weapon and fired from about 60 feet away, killing the teen with a shot to the head. An investigation by American authorities determined that Mesa fired in self-defense in response to smugglers who were throwing rocks at him, despite finding no evidence that Hernández threw anything at the agent.

 



 

 

Mesa was charged with murder by Mexican prosecutors. But when the U.S. refused an extradition request, Hernandez's parents sued. Tuesday's 5-4 ruling came down along familiar ideological lines with the Court's five conservative justices taking the government's side and its four liberal justices dissenting. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that "regulating the conduct of agents at the border unquestionably has national security implications" and that any risk of undermining border security provides a "reason to hesitate." Although they emphasized that the circumstances surrounding the case were "tragic," the conservative justice said that it's up to Congress, not the courts, to decide the scope of civil rights law in such contexts.

 



 

"A cross-border shooting affects the interests of two countries and, as happened here, may lead to disagreement. It is not for this Court to arbitrate between the United States and Mexico, which both have legitimate and important interests at stake and have sought to reconcile those interests through diplomacy," he said in the 20-page opinion. Joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the claim should be heard. 

 



 

In the minority opinion, Ginsburg argued that regardless of the teen's status as a noncitizen, his parents should've been allowed to sue as Mesa was on U.S. soil when he fired the shot. "It scarcely makes sense for a remedy trained on deterring rogue officer conduct to turn on the happenstance subsequent to the conduct — a bullet landing in one half of a culvert, not the other," she wrote. The 86-year-old noted that if Hernández been standing on American soil, he would have constitutional rights and Mesa would be liable. "The only salient difference here: the fortuity that the bullet happened to strike Hernández on the Mexican side of the embankment. But Hernández's location at the precise moment the bullet landed should not matter one whit."

 



 

Ginsburg also cited similar incidents at the US-Mexico border that date back nearly a decade, reports CNN. "Regrettably, the death of Hernández is not an isolated incident. One report reviewed over 800 complaints of alleged physical, verbal, or sexual abuse lodged against Border Patrol agents between 2009 and 2012; in 97% of the complaints resulting in formal decisions, no action was taken," she wrote, referring to a court filing.

 



 

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case, disagreed with the ruling saying, "The gravity of this ruling could not be clearer given the Trump administration's militarized rhetoric and policies targeting people at the border. Border agents should not have immunity to fatally shoot Mexican teenagers on the other side of the border fence. The Constitution does not stop at the border."

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