I spent all of 2015 interviewing and observing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents across Arizona, California and Texas. My goal: to understand how the once predominantly white institution of immigration law enforcement, established and maintained historically as a tool of white supremacy, had come to be disproportionately made up of Latinos. In fact, Latinos make up more than 50% of Border Patrol agents and 24% of ICE agents, the most recent publicly available numbers I found.
I wanted to understand what possesses Latinos to work for agencies that round up or deport neighbors and family members from the very communities they call home. How do Latinos do this to their own people, I asked. Is it self-hatred? A denial of ethnic identity? Or do they think that being party to the state’s exclusionary machinery cements, in a way, their own individual claims to belonging as Americans — to whiteness?
In one interview after another over the span of 13 months, the answer became clear: It’s not any of these. For Latino agents, it’s about the money.
In my research, I find that among those Latinos who elect to enter immigration law enforcement, the majority do so solely in service of economic self-interest. Regardless of personal connections to the immigrant experience, or particular attitudes toward undocumented immigration, for Latino immigration agents, the money is why they join and, perhaps more important, it’s why they stay.
One agent I interviewed, for instance, acknowledged the connection between himself and the migrants he encounters as fellow Latinos, and explained that he felt bad, at times, working in immigration, but that he had to provide for his family. Switching to Spanish for emphasis, he stressed that this was the job he had chosen, so he had to do it.
Another agent offered a similar refrain. While he admitted to an inherent contradiction between who he was as a Latino and what he did as an immigration agent, he was unambiguous about what mattered most. Despite any misgivings he might have about the job, he said he would never do anything to put it in jeopardy because his family came first.
It is tough to ignore the parallels between statements like these and those of migrants willing to risk their lives and flout immigration laws in the hopes of providing a better life for their families here in United States; but such comparisons only seem to reinforce for Latino agents the “us vs. them” distinctions.
Another agent I spoke with demonstrated this better than most. Explaining to me that he often found himself unhappy with what his chosen line of work required him to do, the agent emphasized the need to push aside feelings of empathy if he hoped to pay his own bills.
For some time, I felt I understood where these agents were coming from. Having grown up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I’m familiar with the circumstances faced by people like the agents I met.
In the valley, the percentage of people living in poverty ranks among the highest in the nation. Although Hispanics make up 39% of the Texas population, they make up 51% of the population living in poverty. The unemployment rate consistently outpaces the national average, and Latino median household income in the poorest RGV cities hovers around $31,000 per year.
Thus, the decision to apply for and accept a Customs and Border Protection job that offers a starting salary of nearly $56,000 a year and generous benefits is not a complicated one.
But in the wake of reports of atrocious conditions inside migrant detention facilities along the southern border, and reports of nationwide raids planned by the president to target undocumented immigrants, I can empathize no more. It is time for a different approach.
The moment calls for acts of moral objection, not simply on the part of the general public, but also those charged with implementing the president’s cruelty on the ground. It is time for those agents who know better (and I know you’re out there) to recognize their inherent power. It is time for them to say no, to stand up for what is morally right over what is personally convenient — time to ask of themselves, how much money their humanity is worth.