Patriotism or Racism?: Accountability for Vigilantism on the Mexican Border

Federal Border Patrol agents aren’t the only people scouring the US-Mexico border in search of immigrants illegally crossing the border, joining their ranks are groups of armed private citizens. These citizens claim to support law enforcement by protecting America from the security threat of uncontrolled immigration. Groups such as the Minuteman Project, Ranch Rescue, and the American Border Patrol claim to “operate within the law,” yet they regularly violate both domestic and international law.

Verbal threats, physical assault, and false imprisonment are just some of the crimes that vigilante groups commit while undertaking unofficial patrol of the border. US Border Patrol officers frequently witness these violations, but fail to arrest the culpable individuals. As a result, neither federal nor state prosecutors are prompted to take action. This complicity by the US government encourages the illegal behavior, fails to provide relief for the victims, and offers no protection for future victims.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a division of the Organization of American States (OAS), will soon rule on a petition brought by Border Action Network, a human rights organization based out of Arizona, to determine whether the US has a legal duty to prevent, investigate, and sanction these vigilante groups for the crimes they commit. The US is a member of the OAS and is bound to respect the human rights guarantees set forth in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. One obligation under the Declaration is to affirmatively protect the human rights of all individuals within US territory, regardless of their immigration status. The US should investigate and prosecute criminal incidents of vigilantism along the Mexican border in order to satisfy this responsibility under international law.

The US justice system is founded on the rule of law. Vigilantism is in direct contravention to this underlying ideology. By taking the law into their own hands, vigilante groups along the border aren’t maintaining order and security; they are creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. The US must hold these private individuals accountable for the crimes they commit in order to comply with its obligations under international human rights law.

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