One of the jarring aspects of the flurry of reporting over the past few weeks about secret Facebook groups where Border Patrol agents share hate is the surnames of many of the perpetrators. 

A July 5 article by Ryan Devereaux in The Intercept shows a meme posted by Hector Garcia Jr. that purports to show Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez performing oral sex through a detention center fence in a mock Porn Hub preview. 

One member named Eric Castillo made fun of dead migrant children by writing, “Little tonk blanket ideas!” The word “tonk” is a slur for migrant, and the post included a video of a large portion of meat wrapped in foil, with the idea that the foil apparently resembled the mylar blankets given to unaccompanied children by Border Patrol.

In another thread, Border Patrol members named Gabriel Gonzalez, Zack Smith, Anthony Ramos, Rick Mora Jr. and Michael Scherer ridiculed Central American names, while posting intake forms and IDs with the names of detainees.

In one respect, the phenomenon is not surprising. A paramilitary force whose mission is preventing undocumented people from entering the country by its nature promotes an us-against-them attitude. And given that the majority population in the areas along the southern border, from the Rio Grande Valley across the southern portions of New Mexico, Arizona and California, is Latinx, it makes sense that Latinx people would make up a large portion of the agency’s workforce. In a region saddled with high poverty, a job with the Border Patrol is a ticket to middle-class stability. 

More than 50 percent of Border Patrol employees are Latinx, according to an April 2018 report in the Los Angeles Times, and 10 out of 11 people taking part in the Border Patrol’s citizens’ academy that year were Latinx.

The militarized border dehumanizes both the migrants subjected to squalid conditions and those tasked with enforcing its policies. Like the mass-incarceration state that sorts the economically desperate into roles of prisoner or prison guard, the exclusionary apparatus of the state projects an economic force that draws an unforgiving line between oppressed and oppressor on the border. The willful refusal of the Trump administration to provide adequate staff and facilities to meet the needs of asylum seekers and migrants, including families and children, ensures barbaric conditions, and makes it all but inevitable that frontline agents eventually come to despise those under their control.

The border ultimately is an arbitrary political line drawn to give meaning to a forced idea of who is a “true” American, defined mostly in the negative by who it keeps out.

How can Latinx Border Patrol agents show such contempt towards people who look like them, whose aspirations so closely mirror their own, whose stories are an echo of their own families’ journey?

In her April 2018 article in the Los Angeles Times, Brittany Mejia wrote about Jose Avalos, a 28-year-old Border Patrol trainee in Imperial County, Calif. who was born in the United States shortly after his mother, Fanny Posada, illegally crossed the border from Mexico in the late 1980s.

Posada herself applied to join the Border Patrol in 2001, she told Mejia. Agents grilled her during her interview on how they could be sure she wouldn’t let immigrants go free.

“You’re paying me, and I have to do my job,” Posada replied. “But I’m not going to be mean and I’m going to tell them how they can try legally. That I will try to share with them — because I know they’re nice people; they’re just looking for employment. Now if I found someone with drugs, I probably won’t be that nice.” She ultimately decided not to join because there was no one to watch her children.

But research by David Cortez, an assistant professor of political science and Latinx Studies at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that kindness doesn’t survive long in the agency. To the contrary, its function breeds contempt and dehumanization.

Over the course of 13 months, Cortez has interviewed numerous Border Patrol agents. One agent in particular, Cortez writes in a July 3 opinion piece in USA Today, said he felt unhappy about the requirements of his chosen line of work, but “emphasized the need to push aside feelings of empathy if he hoped to pay his own bills.”

It’s the paycheck that motivates Latinx agents to do a job that requires them to “round up or deport neighbors and family members from the very communities they call home,” Cortez writes, not “self-hatred,” not “a denial of ethnic identity,” not a belief that “being party to the state’s exclusionary machinery cements, in a way, their own individual claims to belonging as Americans — to whiteness.”

The parallels between Border Patrol agents doing a job to provide for their families and “migrants willing to risk their lives and flout immigrations laws in the hopes of providing a better life for their families here in the United States” might be glaringly obvious, Cortez writes, “but such comparisons only seem to reinforce for Latinx agents the ‘us vs. them’ distinctions.”

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