President Donald Trump signaled a willingness to use deadly force, if necessary, to respond to rock-throwing along the U.S.-Mexico border, as thousands of migrants continue trekking through Mexico on their way to the U.S. to claim asylum.
“Anybody throwing stones, rocks, like they did to Mexico … we will consider that a firearm,” Trump told reporters Thursday night. “Because there’s not much difference when you get hit in the face with a rock.”
Trump made those comments after a rambling speech on immigration in which he announced his plan to limit the asylum process. However, he offered few, if any details, about how he would do that.
“They want to throw rocks at our military. Our military fights back,” Trump later added. “I told them to consider it a rifle.”
On Friday, Trump clarified that he hopes the troops “won’t have to fire” at rock-throwers. He also said, “I didn’t say shoot.”
“If they do that with us, they’re gonna be arrested,” Trump said.
Those comments drew criticism, especially as federal courts in the United States grapple with the legal consequences of two high-profile cross-border shooting cases, including one in Arizona, involving Border Patrol agents who shot and killed Mexican teenagers through the border fence for throwing rocks.
In a letter sent to Trump on Friday, attorneys representing families of the victims in the shootings said the use of deadly force in response to rock throwing would violate his administration’s own standards.
In the letter, Texas-based attorneys Steve Shadowen and Richard Hilliard reminded Trump that in 2014 the Department of Homeland Security had repealed its policy of having border agents respond to rock throwing with deadly force.
“You are fully on notice that the resumption of the policy that you announced in your November 1, 2018, speech is patently unlawful, and that, as the originator and promoter of that resumption, you are liable to prosecution for murder, in any court of competent jurisdiction, for any deaths that unlawfully result from your policy,” they said.
Border Patrol agent found not guilty in cross-border slaying of Mexican teen
In April, the Justice Department prosecuted, for the first time, a border agent involved in one of these shootings.
A jury eventually acquitted Arizona Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz of second-degree murder charges for the 2010 shooting death of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Nogales. A retrial, on manslaughter charges, is underway in Tucson.
That case also sparked a civil lawsuit. But U.S. courts are split over whether someone on the border’s south side can sue a federal agent, and by extension the federal government, for damages over these shootings.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that Elena Rodriguez’s mother had the standing the sue Swartz for violating her son’s civil rights, allowing the case to proceed.
2nd trial begins for border agent who fatally shot Mexican teen through border fence
That decision is at odds with the ruling out of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel of judges there ruled earlier this year that in a case out of El Paso that the family of a Mexican teenager was not able to sue the border agent who shot him for damages.
Both cases are before the Supreme Court, which is likely to step in given the split at the circuit courts, legal analysts say. But the process moves slowly and in the meantime, the high court has asked the solicitor general to weigh in on both cases and provide the administration’s position on whether the federal agents can be sued.
More than 7,000 armed, active-duty soldiers are expected to deploy to the southern border in the coming days, even though the migrant caravan that prompted the Trump administration’s decision is still about 800 miles away from the nearest U.S. port of entry.