... 05/OPINION
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U.S. agents can't trample immigrants' civil rights

The legendary black photographer Ernest C. Withers holds a place of honor in his community's history, and that of the whole country, due to the impressive photographs he took during African Americans' fight for their rights.

In one of the photographs, well-known all over the world, African-Americans are shown marching with big "I am a man" signs on their chests, cordoned off by lines of police.

Withers took this photograph during the 20th century, when African Americans fought so that their rights as human beings would be recognized.

Currently, undocumented immigrants in different circumstances wage a similar battle. They expect their human and fundamental rights to be respected, as provided by the U.S. Constitution.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a critical and historic step taken in this regard by federal authorities in Texas, including the court and an appeals judge.

The story was published by the news agency EFE, and involves a Mexican, Maria Antonieta Martinez Agero. She sued a customs agent in 2003 and the border patrol for the physical abuse she allegedly received from these authorities on Oct. 4, 2001, at the international border crossing at Paso del Norte in El Paso, Texas.

According to EFE, the case was against inspector Humberto Gonzalez, who was accused of pushing the woman and hitting her with his knee when she attempted to cross the border with an expired nonimmigrant visa.

Aggressive enforcement

The EFE report continues, "The woman stated that the agent insulted her, and when she repeated the insult to another border crosser, the agent took her by the arms, which he twisted backward and pushed her against a cement barrier while hitting her with his knee."

Martinez Agero filed a suit in 2003 after having health problems she blamed on the incident with the immigration officer.

Gonzalez argued that Martinez Agero did not have constitutional rights at the time of the incident, "as she was trying to enter the United States without appropriate documentation."

Abuse unjustified

The court rejected Gonzalez's immunity argument. Federal Appeals Judge Jerry E. Smith believed that Martinez Agero enjoyed protection based on the Fourth Amendment and concluded that "there is no identifiable national interest that justifies inflicting pain to others."

The judge also established that no reasonable inspector can consider it to be right to hit a defenseless immigrant without provocation.

According to the lawyer Lyn Coyle, who is collaborating with the legal team representing the Mexican woman, before this case it was almost impossible for an immigration officer to lose immunity.

Key decision

The court's denial of Gonzalez's immunity answers the legal question of whether immigrants detained on the border have constitutional rights.

"The decision is key because it protects immigrants on the border from abusive practices by public officers," Martinez Agero's lawyer, Francisco Dominguez, told EFE.

"This decision points out that even at these anti-immigrant sentiment times, the law protects us all regardless of our immigration status," Dominguez said.

"Wearing the immigration officer suit does not give you license to kill, beat up or humiliate an immigrant," he concluded.

Gonzalez's arrogance is striking, in that he argued he was authorized to give poor treatment to an immigrant because she tried to cross the border without papers.

At the same time, Smith's decision is not only striking, but also worthy of praise, as it is a pertinent and brave decision.

No immunity

Before this case, abuses against undocumented immigrants were routine, according to Coyle, particularly since immigration officers' immunity could not be withdrawn.

When lawmakers and enforcement authorities understand they are dealing with human beings who have basic, inalienable rights, resolution of immigration issues will have begun.

The writer is editor of Nuestra Comunidad, a Spanish-language weekly published by the Courier-Post. This column appears on this page and in the weekly Wednesdays.
Published: August 23. 2006 3:10AM