WASHINGTON — Increasing violence along the California-Mexico border, particularly at San Ysidro, is turning the area into a "war zone" where a handful of "Rambo-type" federal agents are escaping accountability, California Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) charged Thursday.
"There are people being killed on a regular basis," Bates told a House judiciary subcommittee hearing on a bill to curb what proponents say is the growing abuse of illegal aliens, mostly by the U.S. Border Patrol.
The bill, which Bates introduced after a controversial shooting of a Mexican youth by the Border Patrol last year, would impose criminal penalties against agents who use "greater force than is necessary" in carrying out their duties. It would also allow federal prosecution in cases that occur across the border from the United States.
Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Duke Austin called the bill unnecessary, because agents have been prosecuted under state laws or disciplined by the federal agency.
"I don't see where the congressman is coming from," Austin said in an interview. He added that the number of misconduct allegations is "minuscule" compared to the number of INS arrests, which this year are expected to reach 1.8 million.
A Justice Department representative made a similar argument before the subcommittee on criminal justice, noting that victims of abuse are free to sue the government in federal court.
Nonetheless, Bates and other proponents of the bill testified that current law is inadequate and that the violent incidents point up the need for a mechanism to bring federal charges against immigration officials who abuse their authority.
Bates testified that San Ysidro, part of the city of San Diego and a hot spot of illegal immigration, has become "a war zone" in part because people are being hired to hurl rocks at immigration authorities and create diversions to allow the smuggling of aliens or contraband into the country. And some agents are retaliating, he said.
Roberto Martinez, a San Diego alien-rights activist, presented subcommittee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) with a photo album of pictures of bruised people Martinez said were abused by authorities.
"Clearly these are not isolated cases," said Martinez, who attributed them to "a Rambo-type mentality" on the part of a small number of officers.
Last year, several San Diego-area Latino groups protested after no charges were filed against a Border Patrol officer who shot a Mexican youth standing on Mexican soil. Humberto Carrillo Estrada, 13, who has since sued the U.S. government in federal court in San Diego, was wounded in the back in the April 18, 1985, incident. He allegedly had thrown large rocks at the officer's colleague, who was trying to apprehend the youth's brother on the U.S. side of the border.
Federal authorities declined to prosecute on the grounds that they had no jurisdiction. And San Diego County officials concluded that the shooting was justified under California's deadly force law because an officer was being attacked.
Bates said that California law enforcement authorities, including San Diego County Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller, encouraged him to introduce the bill.