Suit Targets U.S. Border Vigilantes

Times Staff Writer

Two civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against vigilantes who intercept and detain immigrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages on behalf of six undocumented immigrants who crossed the border in March and were apprehended by one of the vigilante organizations on a private cattle ranch in southwest Texas, eight miles outside Hebbronville. The immigrants were robbed and assaulted before they were turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol, the lawsuit charges.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jim Hogg County, Texas.

The vigilante organization, called Ranch Rescue, and Joseph Sutton, the owner of the 5,000-acre ranch where the immigrants were detained, denied any wrongdoing Thursday and said they treated the immigrants with “respect and dignity.” Sutton, in a telephone interview from Sutton Ranch, declared the lawsuit “bellywash.”


The immigrants were unlawfully detained at gunpoint and by a 125-pound Rottweiler, the lawsuit says. One of the immigrants, a man from El Salvador, alleges that he was pistol-whipped as one of the vigilantes ordered him to kneel with his fingers folded behind his head.

Several others say their lives were threatened by men carrying assault rifles, wearing khaki uniforms and declaring themselves soldiers of the United States, according to the lawsuit.

“The bottom line of our suit is to protect the most vulnerable and worthy of people -- impoverished migrants traveling hundreds of miles on foot across harsh terrain to feed their families,” said Ricardo de Anda, a private attorney who will be the lead trial counsel if the case reaches the courtroom.

The suit is the first to take on paramilitary groups that police the border on their own. In a separate legal campaign, the Tucson-based Border Action Network has begun using billboards and radio advertisements in Mexico in an effort to embolden migrants to report alleged abuse and assaults.


Organizers of the vigilante patrols say they are merely doing what the United States has failed to do -- forcefully police the 2,000-mile border that abuts 24 counties in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“I’m a good old boy. I didn’t inherit this ranch. I paid for it. And very simply, we don’t like, and never will tolerate, trespassers,” Sutton said.

“This is inconceivable to me -- me the citizen, me the taxpayer. They may come into our country illegally, and they seem to be the ones that have all the rights. This thing is backward. I don’t have any rights. And it is time that the people, anybody that is a citizen, got their rights back,” Sutton said.

Four of the immigrants included in the lawsuit were from Mexico; all men, they have since been deported. The other two, a man and a woman from El Salvador, are in the United States, and their attorneys are fighting to keep them here by arguing that they were victims of a crime.

The lawsuit accuses the vigilantes of negligence, infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment and assault. The four Mexican nationals also accuse the group of theft because shoes belonging to one immigrant were stolen, with $3,000 inside.

“This kind of movement is undesirable and leads to violations of individuals’ rights and unlawful activity,” said Joseph Berra, a San Antonio attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We would like to see it stopped.”

The vigilante patrols are, by all accounts, a collateral consequence of an enormous wave of Latin American immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s -- and a subsequent shift in the border policies of the United States.

Instead of capturing immigrants who had crossed the border illegally, the Border Patrol began trying to block immigrants from crossing at all in 1994. That was accomplished largely by deploying vast numbers of agents -- armed with high-tech surveillance equipment and stadium-style lighting -- in urban centers, such as the San Diego area, that have served as hubs of illegal crossings.


When the U.S. policy shifted, so did the strategy of the immigrants and the coyotes who smuggle them across the border for money. Immigrants began crossing the border in rural areas, often walking for days across perilous desert and huge chunks of private land such as Sutton’s ranch.

The Border Patrol apprehended 929,809 illegal immigrants in the 2001-02 fiscal year. Rural counties along the border spend more than $100 million in police, court and emergency medical costs associated with illegal border crossings, and frustration among landowners has risen, leading to the emergence of the vigilante organizations.

Border Patrol officials in Texas referred calls seeking comment to a spokesman in Washington, who could not be reached.

“I object to the term ‘illegal immigrant,’ ” said Jack Foote, a coordinator of Ranch Rescue. Foote, whose permanent residence is in Abilene, Texas, spoke in a telephone interview from Southern California, where he is doing construction work.

“There ain’t nobody immigrating,” he said. “They are committing crimes. This is a crime wave.”

The vigilante groups argue that their services are needed -- not only to shore up inadequate patrols of the border, but to protect private property owners. Migrants, they say, have left behind trash on private property and have opened ranch gates, allowing cattle to roam.

The vigilantes say they have encountered drug smugglers on occasion too. In October, Ranch Rescue vigilantes in Arizona stopped illegal immigrants who were carrying more than 200 pounds of marijuana.

“How do I know they are not armed?” said Foote, who said that he has taken part in operations that have detained about a dozen illegal immigrants. “The only way to determine that is to challenge them in the dark and stop them.”