When I was in college, 3,000 miles from where I am today, I was really stunned and distraught to read that many Border Patrol agents were Mexican-American. Though I knew very little about border dynamics at the time, I was struck by the lack of ethnic compassion and recognition of shared immigration stories. Deciding and then undeciding to do thesis research on the topic, it’s ironic that by the force of fate, I ended up living and working on the border 3 years later and once again thinking about this tension.
What I initially found puzzling now makes a lot more sense. Although the explicit aim of the BP is to intercept illegal immigration, my conversations with BP agents have led me to believe that they are not consciously nativist in their aspirations. Rather I’ve found that they’re focused on their personal goals for the job, “securing America” and “securing their jobs”, their versions of doing good and doing well.
Yesterday I spoke with an aspiring Border Patrol of Mexican descent. He told me that as a kid in Nogales, Arizona he was really confused about who “illegal aliens” actually were. He would say, “I’m not an alien”, in a childhood recognition that the term was being applied to Mexicans like him, but that he wasn’t an extraterrestrial. Now, he is aware that if he would get into the BP he would be involved in preventing “illegal aliens”, Mexicans, not little green men, from entering the country. When I asked him about his feelings on the matter he responded very genuinely that he would be working against “my people” in some ways, but that he would not be in it for that, but rather for security purposes. Like many border residents in the US, he’s concerned that drug violence may spill over to this side.
A few months ago, I had the chance to talk to another BP, half-Mexican, while checking out at Walmart. During that time, I still saw BP agents as the manifestation of their agency and anti-immigrant policy so I maybe interrogated him too hostilely. I walked away from the conversation angry and indignant, after he had said matter-of-factly that many illegal immigrants were coming to the US to commit crimes, and that the Border Patrol prevents tons of drugs from making it to the US streets (yeah, but the interceptions wouldn’t be necessary if the US controlled demand in the first place!). As time passed though, I became less angry. I’ve realized that this guy, like the aspiring agent, is motivated by the desire to do what he sees as good, a service to his country.
I am definitely not saying that all causes are equal, or because someone feels good about what they’re doing that it’s a good cause. Nor do I pardon these guys’ involvement in the BP. I think that cognitive dissonance has clouded many BPs’ judgment in acting correctly and ethically, and actually taking into account that yes, in fact working for the Border Patrol is a betrayal of la gente mexicana. (With reason, many Mexicans call the Mexican-American BP agents pochos, roughly translated as Mexican American traitors.) But I do at least understand where they’re coming from and how they see their jobs.
Of course, the wish to do their version of good is only a part of the story, and not the main motivation. The fact of the matter is that the Border Patrol is an attractive job, materially speaking. Salaries start around $40,000 and come with generous benefits and retirement after 20 years. And the BP is always recruiting. Even now, despite the ailing economy, recruitment events are happening around the country. According to my gym buddy, they are currently hiring 11,000 new recruits, and he wants to be one of them (even if he’s number 10,999, he says) to have better pay and job stability. And while money is not everything, I can’t entirely blame him. For many residents on the US border, not the most thriving part of the country by any means, it is one of the most lucrative options available.
The desire to do well economically, what I believe to be people’s main driver to apply to the BP, is the same desire that propels people along the border to get involved in another very unsavory activity, the drug cartels, which like the BP, are said to offer great pay, cars, houses and even insurance to their henchmen. The comparison I think is an apt one, as both those involved in the BP and the drug cartels work for their personal and familial well being first, and above eveything else. It is highly unfair that, because of the way the system is set up, the BP’s pursuit of material well-being is predicated on hindering those south of the border from pursuing theirs.