By Nina Lakhani
Landmark ruling follows case of three young Indigenous Mexicans detained and abused on suspicion of being Guatemalan migrants
Mexican immigration agents can no longer conduct stop and search operations on buses and highways after the country’s supreme court ruled that such checks are racist, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
The landmark ruling, handed down in Mexico City on Wednesday, found in favour of three young Indigenous Mexicans who were detained and abused by immigration (INM) officials in 2015 during a US-backed crackdown.
The siblings – aged 15 to 24 – were on a bus of seasonal farmhands in Querétaro, central Mexico, when apprehended by agents who targeted them because of their physical features, clothes and limited Spanish.
The agents accused them of being undocumented immigrants from neighbouring Guatemala, but they were Indigenous Tzeltal Mayans from the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, where 25% of the population speak an Indigenous language.
Shortly after the ordeal, the Guardian revealed how the sisters, Amy and Esther, and their brother were taken to a detention centre and held illegally for eight days. Alberto, then aged 18, was beaten and given electric shocks until he agreed to sign a deportation document written in Spanish admitting they were Guatemalan, even though he cannot read or write.
After considering the case, the supreme court ruled that the 2011 immigration reforms allowing agents to stop and search anyone anywhere in Mexico are unconstitutional – because the discretionary powers rely on agents identifying undocumented migrants based on their race, skin color, physical appearance and language spoken.
The law is therefore discriminatory, violating equality legislation and the right to move freely within Mexico.
“The decision represents an opportunity to stop the discriminatory and racist practices by immigration authorities and the national guard who utilize racial profiling to detect migrants, that have led to arbitrary detentions of both immigrants and Mexicans,” said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration which helped bring the case.
The overland passage through Mexico is one of the most dangerous migration corridors in the world. In addition to the threat posed by criminal networks, tens of thousands of people are detained every year during stop and search operations, with widespread reports of abuses such as bribes, kidnap and sexual assault involving immigration agents and security forces.
Immigration checkpoints have spread across the country since 2014, as part of a bilateral US-Mexico plan to stop migrants reaching the US southern border. The measures have caused widespread misery but done little to stop asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach the US.
“The checkpoints don’t stop migrants anyway, who are coming [to the US] in record numbers,” said Adam Isacson, a borders and security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (Wola). “All they do is force migrants into more remote areas where organised crime preys upon them, while providing corrupt migration agents an illegal income stream in exchange for waving migrants through.”
Wednesday’s ruling calls into question the role of Mexico’s armed forces, especially the national guard – a militarized public security agency created by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – which has been deployed across the country to assist the INM. According to the court, the INM can only carry out ID checks at ports, airports or land border crossings, and in other limited situations.
It comes almost two years after the youngsters received a rare public apology from the government, when the immigration chief admitted they had been subjected to human rights violations as a result of racial profiling. Six agents were suspended for two to four weeks for the abuse.
The incident left the youngsters, who narrowly avoided being expelled from their home country after the older sister’s boyfriend alerted human rights workers, traumatised and afraid to leave their community in search of work.
“I really thought I was going to die, so I signed lots of sheets of paper – but I can’t read or write so I didn’t know what I was signing,” Alberto told the Guardian through a translator in 2016.
The government is yet to comment on the ruling.