On October 1, 2020, attorneys at Hilliard Shadowen LLP and Hilliard Martinez Gonzales LLP filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold the United States accountable for the cross-border killings of multiple Mexican citizens. The Petitioners are family members of six victims killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The victims include a 16-year-old who was shot in the back 10 times, Guillermo Arevalo who was picnicking with his wife and daughters along the Rio Grande, and four others. The death of 15-year-old Sergio Hernandez sparked a Supreme Court case.
Counsel for the Petitioners, Nicholas Shadowen, said: “These tragic cases are yet another series of police killings in America that have gone largely unnoticed and wholly unredressed. The United States must be held accountable; there must be police reform in this country; and it must happen now.”
The consequential lawsuit comes at a complicated time in U.S.-Mexico relations. U.S. President Donald Trump has been increasing border security and militarizing the border since his election in 2016.
The petition alleges that U.S. border patrol agents engaged in systematic extrajudicial killings of Mexican citizens along the U.S.-Mexico border. It also alleges that the U.S. violated international law by refusing to allow the families of the victims to obtain judicial review in U.S. courts, citing sovereign immunity. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Sergio Hernandez, which refused permission for his family to get judicial review by suing the border patrol agent who killed Hernandez, is the latest example of this refusal.
Another counsel for the Petitioners, Robert Hilliard, said “When the law of the land is that a U.S. law enforcement officer, while on U.S. soil, may shoot and kill an unarmed, unthreatening child, unchecked by the U.S. civil justice system, the arch of the moral universe snaps, no longer able to bend towards justice. The courage of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting words resonate: ‘I resist the conclusion that ‘nothing’ is the answer required in this case.’ We call on this Commission to declare and find a violation of international law. What matters is the life wrongly taken, and the immensity of death.”
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is the human rights arm of the Organization of American States (OAS). IACHR was created in 1959 “to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere.” As a member of OAS, the U.S. has committed to uphold its obligations to the organization, which include abiding by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, a declaration that prohibits the arbitrary taking of life. However, non-compliance by a state deprives the system of its effectiveness. The United States is a repeat non-compliance state, meaning that the Inter-American human rights system has not been able to enforce its decisions.
The Border Patrol maintains a “Rocking Policy,” which permits agents to shoot to kill even in the absence of imminent threat. The policy was established to allow Border Patrol agents to shoot and kill Mexicans “who allegedly threw rocks at them, regardless of whether [it] posed an imminent risk of death or serious injury to the agents or anyone else, and regardless of whether other, nonlethal means were available to avert any such risk” according to a lawsuit filed by Arevalo’s wife.
The “Rocking Policy” that the CBP has raises questions about the degree to which deadly force is warranted by a BP agent when the greatest threat to the agent is rocks being thrown at them or at the border fence.
The recent petition and Supreme Court case will likely complicate the debate about human rights on the U.S.-Mexico border. Advocates for immigration rights, as well as children’s welfare, may come to cite this petition as proof of dangerous and abusive U.S. policy.