Mestena Group

As reported by the Texas Tribune on Sept. 4, the Texas Supreme Court might rule this month on Rodriguez v. Boerjan: a case that seems straightforward, but highlights a gray area in the legal status afforded to undocumented immigrants.

In 2007, a car with a group of undocumented immigrants tried to get around a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County by crossing land belonging to the Mestena Group, a company dealing largely in uranium production. After Philip Boerjan, a security guard, stopped the vehicle, the driver took off, starting a high-speed pursuit down a dusty caliche road. The chase ended in a rollover accident that killed three of the car’s passengers — a couple and their 7-year-old daughter.

The family of the deceased filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Boerjan and the company, claiming that the pursuit constituted negligence, assault and other related offenses.

The defendants responded that they were not liable for the deaths, as the plaintiffs’ wrongful death charges “are inextricably intertwined with the decedents’ illegal activities and, accordingly, are barred under the Unlawful Acts Rule.”

The Unlawful Acts Rule is a long-standing doctrine that bars people from seeking recompense for damages if they cannot separate the claims from their own illegal activity.

A state court, sympathetic to that argument, dismissed the charges in 2011. After the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Boerjan and the company appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

No one contests that the occupants of the car were trespassing on private property, lending credence to Boerjan and the Mestena Group’s arguments.

We concur with Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who filed an amicus brief on their behalf that read in part, “Key to the preservation and promotion of agriculture is the protection of private property owners’ rights ... The court must recognize and continue to apply established Texas law recognizing these rights.”

Boerjan, in his capacity as a security guard, was well within his rights to confront and pursue intruders, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.

Even so, the case raises a difficult question. Undocumented immigrants are committing an unlawful act simply by being on American soil. Does the Unlawful Acts Rule grant immunity to anyone who normally would be liable for damages, as long as the victim is in this country illegally?

The Mexican government and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund both filed amicus briefs expressing that concern. A decision “to allow a person’s immigration status to bar his recovery in tort,” read the MALDEF brief, “will leave undocumented immigrants without civil remedies, and will encourage vigilantism and lawlessness directed against the Latino community.”

In this particular case, we feel that Boerjan acted appropriately and should not be held liable for the fate of those who trespassed on private property. Nevertheless, we hope that the court is careful not to set a precedent that prevents people from suing because of their undocumented status even when they are wronged on American soil.

Undocumented immigrants are still human beings and should have the ability to seek legal redress for persecution done to them.