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Judge OKs $1-million settlement in border death case

Judge OKs $1-million settlement in border death case
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas died after an encounter with U.S. border agents in 2010. (Family photo)

A federal judge has tentatively approved the U.S. government's offer to pay $1 million to the children of a Mexican man who died after being beaten and shocked with a stun gun at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The settlement will be dispersed among the five children of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, 42, who had lived and worked in the U.S. illegally since he was a teen. U.S. Magistrate Judge Louisa Porter, whose approval was needed because two of the children are minors, delayed signing the final order until she was certain the funds didn't need to go through probate.

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"This agreement is not justice," Hernandez Rojas' wife, Maria Puga, said after the hearing Thursday. "My husband's life does not have a price. The decision had to be taken and it was difficult. We had to turn the page."

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego declined to discuss the settlement. The U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix, which handled the case, also declined to make a statement.

"I hope you use the funds so you can have a good life going forward," Porter told Hernandez Rojas' two 10-year-old children, who were at the hearing. The judge said that their father "came to this country to improve his life, and he'd like to see your lives improved by virtue of all the sacrifices he made for you."

The 7-year case shined a spotlight on use of force at the border and what critics say is a lack of transparency at CBP, the nation's largest law enforcement agency.

Because of the family's persistence, said Pedro Ríos of the U.S.-Mexico Border Program at American Friends Service Committee, an immigrant rights group, Customs and Border Protection's use-of-force manual was made public and studies were launched looking at the issue.

Attorney Eugene Iredale, who represented the family, said the case highlighted the critical need for public awareness and involvement to prevent brutality. He lauded the two witnesses who stopped to record the beating on their cellphones.

"Unfortunately, the attitude that was so prevalent in what happened to Anastasio has now received a renaissance because of a new [Trump] administration," Iredale said.

Hernandez Rojas had just crossed the border illegally near Otay Mesa with his brother in May 2010 when they were caught by Border Patrol agents.

According to the lawsuit, an agent told Hernandez Rojas to throw away a water jug he was holding and then slapped it out of his hand when he appeared to misunderstand the command. The agent threw him against a wall and kicked his legs apart, hitting metal pins in his ankle from a previous injury.

Hernandez Rojas requested medical attention and told a supervisor he had been roughed up but was ignored, according to the suit. Authorities later took him to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where they took off his handcuffs. Hernandez Rojas put his arms down instead of behind his head, prompting agents to try to restrain him.

During the struggle, Hernandez Rojas could be heard on a witnesses' video pleading for help and asking why he was being treated like an animal. He resisted efforts to put him into a vehicle to take him for booking, authorities said. One CBP officer shot him with a Taser and others held him face down and grabbed his legs.

After they discovered that Hernandez Rojas had stopped breathing, they took him to a hospital, where he was put on a ventilator for two days before he died.

An autopsy concluded that Hernandez Rojas had died of a heart attack and listed contributing factors, including methamphetamine intoxication, heart disease, the Taser shocks, the physical exertion and restraints. The autopsy stated that he would not have died if he hadn't been under the influence of drugs, the Justice Department said.

Federal agencies, including the Justice Department and FBI, investigated the death but found there was not enough evidence to justify criminal charges against any of the 12 agents or officers involved.

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"It's an embarrassment to this agency to continue to have the 12 agents working, the agents who killed my husband," said Puga, 46, who lives in San Diego with four of her children.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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