Answering this question has the implications for U.S. discussions and policies involving the socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, nationality, and immigration.
In this post, I discuss how financial interests, historical support of the Border Patrol, historical push for White supremacy policies, and the diverse socio-political leanings of Latinos can help make sense of this phenomenon.
It’s About the Money
Given the critical situation at the Mexico-U.S. border, David Cortez, a political science scholar, had a similar question. He wanted to know why so many Latinos were involved in this line of immigration work.
He wondered if racial self-hate and a desire to assimilate into whiteness had prompted Latinos to work for agencies that deported Latino people. Cortez interviewed and observed ICE agents across Texas, Arizona and California. The results prompted his USA op-ed, “I asked Latinos why they joined immigration law enforcement. Now I’m urging them to leave.”
Cortez found, “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.”
For a period of time, he understood the economic hardships faced by Latinos who woefully choose this line of work for survival. Cortez observed:
Although Hispanics make up 39% of the Texas population, they make up 51% of the population living in poverty… 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.
In keeping with the title, Cortez closed his essay declaring that he no longer empathized with the Latinos who make these choices, calling for them to stand up for what is “morally right.”
ProPublica uncovered a secret Facebook group of approximately 9500 current and former Border Control agents with racist, sexist, xenophobic and other derogatory content. If Latinos participated in this group, it does not fit the financial survival narrative. This self-interest at “moral” costs is not a new phenomenon and racism/White supremacy remains a factor worth exploring.
In her Los Angeles Times article, Brittny Mejia observed that most of the 2018 El Centro Border Patrol academy trainees grew up near the border. Confirming Cortez’s findings, she found that many of the trainees wanted to join for financial stability.
Notably, Mejia found that contrary to younger Latinos in urban and more liberal contexts, these younger Latinos individuals referred to people in the U.S. illegally as “illegals.” One of the individuals featured in the article, Antonio, dreams of joining the Border Patrol like his aunt, but it has not been without inner and social conflict.
His friends have challenged him with the same question as Cortez regarding arresting his own people, to which, Antonio replied, “I’m protecting my people. My people are here.”
As for his internal conflict, Antonio attested to the distancing of empathy in order to do the work:
You do arrest people who like — what if that was my uncle? If it was my uncle,’ he said before pausing. ‘I would arrest him. But I wouldn’t be able to, like, physically do it. I would have another agent do it.’
The use of “my people are here” and “illegals” appears to lean on ideas of citizenship and nationality in order to preserve/justify material interests of Latino Border Patrol agents. Is it a racist transnational legacy that helps certain Latino people distance themselves from the horrific conditions at the border in order to do their job?
Or is it all about the money?
When Latinos Stood for White Supremacy
The Border Patrol has recruited Latino people since its establishment in 1924. During the 1940s, Mexican American civil rights leaders and Mexican officials sought methods of ethno-racial self-interest that anchored itself in White supremacy.
They even pressured Texas to officially classify individuals of Mexican descent as Caucasians.
It worked… in part.
In 1943, Texas Legislature issued the “Caucasian Race-Equal Privileges Resolution” prohibiting racial discrimination against individuals of Mexican origin in public facilities.
The beginning stated:
…all nations of the North American and South American continents are banded together in an effort to stamp out Nazism and preserve democracy… Our neighbors to the South are cooperating and aiding us in every way possible and… The citizens of the great State of Texas are interested in doing all that is humanly possible to aid and assist the national policy of hemispherical solidarity.
The resolution called for:
All persons of the Caucasian Race within the jurisdiction of this State are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of all public places of business or amusement, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and rules and regulations applicable alike to all persons of the Caucasian Race.
Mexicans and Mexican Americans were now legally considered part of the “Caucasian Race” without the resolution explicitly naming their ethnic group (not exactly their intended outcome).
They located their transnational push for civil rights within a construction of whiteness that was supposedly pro-democracy and anti-Nazism.
This resolution demonstrated how racism is both illogical and destructive. It officially protected White supremacy and included Mexican descendants into the fold in a stand against White supremacy (Nazism).
Similarly, the hemispherical solidarity and preservation of democracy excluded people of African descent.
This resolution allowed for not just Mexican Americans, but also Mexican deportees to have more rights than African Americans. For example, Mexican nationals who were in the process of being deported were allowed to sit down at restaurants to eat and have front door access, whereas African Americans who were citizens could not.
In her book, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (American Crossroads), Kelly Lytle Hernandez explained:
By fighting for inclusion within the realm of whiteness, Mexican officials simultaneously drew upon and reinforced the black/white divide as the most basic and fundamental racial /ethnic division in American life. As a struggle for immigrant incorporation, this was a strategy that had worked for many other immigrant groups in together places at other times: the Irish had donned blackface, and Italians had defended residential segregation.
But along with their battle for whiteness, Mexican officials participated in the buildup of U.S. immigration law enforcement in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. By contributing to the U.S.-Mexico border and to its deepening project of policing unsanctioned Mexican immigration, Mexican officials participated in the Mexicanization caste of illegals in the United States.
This strategy for progress involved keeping the White/Black racial divide in-tact and striving for legal protection as White people or higher status ethno-racial groups in the U.S. society. Considering the history of denigrating and subjugating Afro-Latino people within the Latino community, it is not a radical ideological leap to form an agenda aligned with White supremacy.
Mexican American veterans’ organization American G.I Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) used their massive influence among the burgeoning Mexican American middle class to support Border Patrol initiatives like Operation Wetback in 1954 and the Bracero program which was a pathway for undocumented migrants to become migrant workers.
According to Hernandez, the leaders encouraged Mexican Americans to accept racial profiling in the campaign as a short-term inconvenience in service of the larger goal of ridding the nation of the large numbers of undocumented Mexicans who created unemployment for their families.
The Mexican Americans’ “people,” then, consisted of Mexican Americans and White people.
In 1963, the majority of LULAC delegates voted against proposal to support and demonstrate solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King and fellow protesters in the fight for Civil Rights. Their reasoning was that aligning with the Civil Rights movement of King distracted from focusing on their Mexican American problems.
The American GI forum disapproved of the movement’s use of civil disobedience. Solidarity with other racial groups went against their White supremacy approach to Latino uplift.
Complicating Latino Support of Racism
Although the history of Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans support of white supremacy has been historically linked to their involvement in the Border Patrol, it does not tell the complete story of Latino perspectives on immigration.
In her Berkeley La Raza Law Journal discussion of the shift of Mexican Americans to the political left, Nancy MacLean wrote:
…it was neither the inspiration of the black struggle alone nor simply common victimization by the police and courts that led to new ways of thinking about race and operating in pursuit of justice. Rather, what led Mexican American leaders to change their strategy was the Civil Rights Act won by the African American civil rights struggle.
It enabled Mexican Americans to embrace non-white identity without assuming the risk involved when discrimination was legal. Title VII of the Act, in particular, promised unprecedented help in the fight to end employment discrimination and improve employment opportunities, two longstanding goals that had earlier been elusive.
Although they helped enshrine White supremacy within the laws, the shift of more Latino people to the left came from the Civil Rights Act.
Despite the work of certain Mexican officials and Mexican Americans to push racist laws, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez had mutual respect for their commitment to achieving justice to nonviolence. Although they never met, Dr. King sent Chavez two telegrams, one during Chavez’s 25 day fast for nonviolence.
During late 1950s, organizations like Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the Community Service Organization (CSO) rose to prominence. Chavez and other activists arose from these groups. Unlike their counterparts of LULAC and the American GI Forum, Oscar Rosales Castañeda suggested that many Mexican-Americans were impressed by the Black civil rights movement and felt discontentment with being “ethnic whites.”
As a result, they began to locate their struggles, second class treatment, and resistance organizing in racism.
Latino Perspectives Are Not a Monolith
As with any racial and ethno-racial group, Latino perspectives are not a monolith. Their backgrounds include Asian, African, European, and Indigenous identities with a range of moral and socio-political perspectives.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 21% of Millennial Latino voters described their political views as conservative, 38% as moderate, and 37% as liberal.
Among non-Millennial Latino voters, 40% described their political views as conservative, while 35% said they were moderate, and 21% said they were liberal. Overall, 32% described their political views as conservative. 36% as moderate, and 28% as liberal.
Regardless of the majority of Latino voters affiliating with the Democrat party, I think that the fairly even distribution of political views helps to better understand why various Latinos might not approach the immigration issue according to prevailing liberal expectations.
Certainly, money plays a major part in why most Border Patrol agents and increasing numbers of ICE agents are Latino. With the legacy of how race/racism shapes their perspectives and the distribution of political beliefs, money does not tell the entire story.
That is, conservative, moderate, and liberal Latinos will have shared and varied thoughts on moral, social, political, and economic issues as it relates to their work—their lives, including choosing to work for the Border Patrol and ICE.
I connect the phenomenon of rising Latino Border Patrol and ICE agents to historic factors that shape contemporary socio-economic opportunities as well as Latino political and moral perspectives about immigration.
The contemporary criticism of Latino Border Patrol agents as sell-outs who are not looking out for their own people calls for more analysis.
In a diverse nation like the United States, a vision of look out for only Latino people at the expense of other nonwhite racial groups still feeds racism just like the past.
What does it look like to stand for your people and with other people? How does nation/country factor in determining “your people” and ways to stand in solidarity with “other people?” Does it?
I raise these questions to highlight the need for more conversations to reflect the complexity of immigration and racism.
Closing: Locating Ourselves in Each Other
Racial solidarity as a way to effectively and strategically uproot racism has and continues to be a challenge in realizing social progress post-Civil Rights era. Solidarity requires a shared interest and commitment to a larger inclusive vision.
Like Chavez and King, when we can locate ourselves in each other, we can better challenge our country to live up its ideas. A successful push for remedies to systemic inequities stand against divide and conquer tactics among nonwhite racial groups.
The politics that ignore the Black children who are locked in cages in order to feed the school to prison pipeline yet preach against locking Latino children in cages at the border are just as racist and immoral as the policies and practices that created both conditions.
True solidarity simultaneously addresses both critical humanitarian issues.
It significantly improves the 54% childhood poverty rate for Hmong-Americans. It stops the ways invisibility maintains racial disparities for Native American youth and adults. Solidarity opens our eyes to the White children who represent at least 1/3 of those living in poverty.
Social and economic progress requires challenging White supremacy.
They involve challenging the ways nonwhite people indirectly and unintentionally support racism through political and social causes, too.
Like many U.S. Americans of different political affiliations, I desire immigration reform that is humane and respects the dignity of people.
In a diverse nation that struggles with racism from interpersonal to institutional domains, immigration reform is no longer only about irrational White fears of the other.
Is it easier to point out the Neo-Nazi or Confederate flag waving White person as supporting White supremacy than the Latino individual who fought to be legally categorized as White?
Is it easier to call Latino Border Patrol agents “sell outs” than to begin wading through issues that do not easily fit liberal political perspectives?
When one believes in protecting the nation at any and all costs, is it easier to celebrate Latino ICE agents as “patriots” than to take a closer at the work conditions and culture?
As I have written in the past, greater understanding about how race has worked in the past and its present mechanisms helps to recognize political manipulation of grand narratives.
Reforming immigration requires the kind of vision and actions that do not reinforce a contemporary racial hierarchy, rooted in colorblindness and the unresolved Black/White divide.
Why do Latinos make up over half of the U.S. Border Patrol?
Depending on your perception of their choices, the answer is simple.
And like the immigration issue, it is complicated.