Stun gun death adds fuel to fire

Incidents at border intensify debate over immigration policy

BY LESLIE BERESTEIN   JUNE 14, 2010

Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, an undocumented immigrant who worked in construction, was shot with a Taser while being deported in May 2010. He suffered a heart attack and died. — Family photo

The deaths of two people during confrontations with border officials in recent weeks, one in San Diego and one in El Paso, have pushed an already-heated debate over illegal immigration to the boiling point.

On May 28, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, 42, was shot with a Taser stun gun by a U.S Customs and Border Protection officer at the San Ysidro border crossing after he resisted agents trying to send him back to Mexico. He later died.

Last Monday, 15-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent after a group he was with on the Mexican side of the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez threw rocks at U.S. agents.

John Skrentny, a sociologist and the new director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, said the tone of the immigration debate has given special significance to the events at the border, with controversy raging over a new immigration law in Arizona and the Obama administration under fire for not overhauling national immigration laws.

“An incident like this, coming into this atmosphere, becomes symbolic,” Skrentny said.

At a San Diego news conference Thursday attended by Hernandez’s family members, an attorney representing the deceased man’s children said an administrative complaint would soon be filed against the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection. If the federal government rejects the complaint, the family can file a wrongful-death civil lawsuit after six months, attorney Eugene Iredale said.

In Lemon Grove last week, a crowd of about 300 attended the funeral for Hernandez, a father of five who moved to the United States illegally from Mexico as a teen and lived in Encanto.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has weighed in, issuing a statement saying his government is “shocked and outraged” by the two deaths and calling for a thorough investigation.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the shooting in Texas “extremely regrettable.” He said that the FBI is investigating both incidents and that the shared interests of both countries would continue to keep the binational relationship strong.

U.S. federal authorities have otherwise declined to comment about the incidents.

Hernandez had been picked up by immigration authorities and sent back to Mexico the last week of May. According to San Diego police, who are investigating his death, he was arrested by Border Patrol agents with his brother May 28 in the Otay Mountain area, trying to re-enter illegally. As he was about to be returned that night, he allegedly tried to fight the agents unloading him from a van. More agents and customs officers were called to assist.

According to a witness, Hernandez was prone with close to 20 officers around him at one point. Humberto Navarrete, a 24-year-old student from National City, said he heard screams as he and a companion were walking toward the border turnstile.

In a grainy cell phone video taken by Navarrete, a man is heard repeatedly screaming “No!” and “Por favor!” (please).

He said the man was eventually moved farther away, after which he heard about five shocks from the stun gun. After that, he said, the man fell silent. An ambulance appeared several minutes later.

Hernandez was declared brain-dead in a Chula Vista hospital the next day and was eventually removed from life support.

According to the county Medical Examiner’s Office, he suffered a heart attack, with hypertension, methamphetamine intoxication and the fight contributing.

Federal agencies are referring inquiries to San Diego police, but in recent days, the union representing Border Patrol agents has come forward. In a statement regarding the El Paso shooting, the National Border Patrol Council pointed out that “rocks are weapons and constitute deadly force” and that agents must defend themselves.

Shawn Moran, vice president of the union’s Local 1613 in San Diego, said weapons such as Taser stun guns, pepper spray or batons aren’t used unless a subject is actively resisting. And while these aren’t intended to be lethal, sometimes they can be.

“There are always going to be exceptions where there is an underlying problem,” Moran said. “It can happen with pepper spray. It can happen with a baton. They are supposed to be less than lethal, but there is always the chance that there is some unfortunate incident.”

In the past four years, four migrants or suspected smugglers have been killed in confrontations with border officials in the San Diego area, including a suspected smuggler who accelerated toward a customs officer, a man who grabbed a Border Patrol agent’s gun, and another man shot during a rock-throwing altercation with Border Patrol agents.

San Diego police are interviewing witnesses to the Taser incident. The homicide unit can be reached at (619) 531-2293.

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