Ford Burkhart and Mihir Zaveri
c.2019 The New York Times Company
TUCSON, Ariz. — A former Border Patrol agent who hit a fleeing migrant with his truck in 2017 — and who, more than two weeks before the encounter, referred to immigrants in a text message as “subhuman” and “mindless murdering savages” — was sentenced Wednesday to three years of probation.
The agent, Matthew Bowen, 39, pleaded guilty in August to deprivation of rights under color of law, a misdemeanor. His case had intensified national scrutiny of the treatment of migrants during the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Bowen had faced up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. But Judge Thomas Ferraro of U.S. District Court in Tucson imposed a sentence of 36 months of probation and 150 hours of community service and directed Bowen to repay the migrant’s medical costs, which have yet to be determined.
Ferraro said that the encounter had occurred during a period of “turmoil” on the border and that it was “only one incident” in Bowen’s 11-year career with the Border Patrol. But the judge said that Bowen’s conduct reinforced negative stereotypes of border officials.
“We have to hold these agents to the highest standard,” Ferraro said. “By and large, they are dedicated and sincerely try to do their best.”
He told Bowen in court: “I want you to remember this case. We are going to be following you and we will be looking over your shoulder. If you screw up, you will be looking at a year in prison.”
Bowen, who wore a black suit and tie and white shirt, declined to comment after the sentencing.
Bowen’s lawyer, Sean Chapman, said Bowen had made “10,000 apprehensions” with the Border Patrol. But during the encounter in 2017, he “lost his composure for a few seconds,” Chapman said. He said that Bowen had apologized.
“It was a horrible act, and he has paid a high price,” Chapman said.
Bowen was suspended by the Border Patrol in June 2018. He resigned Aug. 8, 2019.
The episode took place Dec. 3, 2017. Court documents say that Bowen hit the migrant, Antolin Rolando Lopez-Aguilar, with his truck and nearly ran him over after Lopez-Aguilar appeared to be trying to cross into the United States illegally near Nogales, Arizona.
Lopez-Aguilar had abrasions on his right hand and both knees after being struck, the documents say. The same day, Lopez-Aguilar was charged with unlawful entry into the United States and transported to a nearby hospital. It was not immediately clear what happened to him after that.
Ferraro said Wednesday that lawyers had 90 days to determine Lopez-Aguilar’s medical costs.
Lopez-Aguilar was not present in court Wednesday.
The case prompted widespread outrage after a series of racist and derogatory text messages exchanged between Bowen and other Border Patrol agents found by prosecutors on Bowen’s cellphone were included in the court filing.
Some of the messages reflected Bowen’s perception of immigrants, his political beliefs and his job dissatisfaction, according to court documents.
In a message sent to another Border Patrol agent more than two weeks before the episode, Bowen wrote, “PLEASE let us take the gloves off trump!” and referred to immigrants as “mindless murdering savages,” “subhuman” and “unworthy of being kindling for a fire.”