Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca was playing chicken.
At just fifteen years of age, in a dried-out desert basin separating the United States and Mexico, he and his friends on the Mexican side of the border dared each other to run towards the border fence and touch it before running back to the other side.
From the American side, US Border Patrol (USBP) agent Jesus Mesa Jr put a bullet through the teenager’s head.
And, in a cruel affront to his memory, the agency quickly accused Sergio of endangering the agents on duty. Mesa “feared for his life,” he claimed, as Sergio was throwing rocks in their direction. Video footage soon emerged that contradicts this account: Sergio’s back was turned to the agents. He was trying to flee.
Last week, the Supreme Court decided that USBP cannot be sued for Sergio’s death. Citing “the risk of undermining border security,” they moved to dismiss a lawsuit brought by his family. Had Sergio been born just a few steps north, his family would have had legal recourse through the protections of US citizenship. Sergio’s humanity (or lack thereof, in the eyes of the United States) was determined by the span of a few feet.
The arbitrary nature of this decision speaks to the senseless hierarchy imposed by borders. It goes without saying that the border isn’t real. For much of its existence, those living along the US-Mexico dividing line knew this to be true: for years, locals would saunter across either side for lunch or a day of shopping. Parents would visit their children who’d settled a few miles north or south.
For them, borders weren’t real. Until that changed. President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper hired thousands of additional Border Patrol agents to police the region and established a series of checkpoints, effectively routing migrants through grueling and remote terrain. “Prevention Through Deterrence,” USBP argued, would increase the risks of border crossing by forcing migrants off established paths and into dangerous terrain.
The argument was simple: by making the journey more dangerous, migrants would refuse to take the risk. Ten thousand deaths and counting later, people keep coming — hunger is often more motivating than fear. NAFTA, implemented just a year before, robbed two million Mexicans of their land. For many of them, it was come to the United States or starve.
Sergio is far from the first to fall victim to an invisible dividing line. Hundreds each year die slow and painful deaths along the borderlands. As asylum claims have been systematically dismantled, desperate people take ever greater risks in search of safety by making the dangerous crossing.
Migrants face kidnapping and extortion at the hands of gang members and the complicity of Mexican authorities who are in on the cut. Sexual violence is so common along the migrant trail that young girls take birth control before embarking: an estimated 60 percent of women are raped along the journey. Prevention Through Deterrence, still a mainstay of border policy, forces migrants deep into remote desert terrain. There, they face scorching days and frigid nights, raw hunger and desperate thirst, all while evading hostile, heavily armed agents.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Border violence isn’t inherent — it’s manufactured. Prior to this militarization, around five dead migrants were found each year along the southern Arizona border. Today, it’s closer to 200.
This migration is itself spurred by ongoing campaigns of US violence. Free market policies and US military violence destroy homes and ecosystems, ruin economies and lives wholesale, then penalize those who flee. When not imposing trade deals that rob millions of their land, US fingerprints on the region include backing soldiers that massacred entire villages and raped young girls; installing a dictator that maintained order through mass disappearances and sexual torture; and deposing a democratically elected president for threatening US corporate profits. In the CIA’s first two decades alone, the United States orchestrated coups in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, and Brazil. A popular immigrant rights refrain says it best: “We are here because you were there.”
It was not just Sergio’s family that was denied justice. The Supreme Court’s decision leaves a rogue federal agency unaccountable to those most subject to its wrath. But this violence, though grotesque, is not new. It’s part and parcel of border enforcement. And with a Supreme Court ruling like the one handed down last week, it will continue unabated.