EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The role of law enforcement is under fire following many examples of excessive use of force, nationwide sweeps, and racial profiling that have caused injuries, deaths, and public distrust.
Along the border in cities like El Paso, the relationship between law enforcement agencies like ICE and Border Patrol and the community is particularly tense despite work to stop human trafficking, drug smuggling, and illegal immigration.
El Paso’s population is more than 80 percent Latino or Hispanic, and many are or have family members who are (at least at one point have at one point been), immigrants.
A new study in the journal Political Research Quarterly reports Latinos are disproportionately represented in law enforcement agencies like ICE and Border Patrol.
According to David Cortez, a professor of Political Science and Latino Studies at Notre Dame University, who interviewed Latino ICE agents in Texas, Arizona, and California, an interesting pattern regarding the immigrant experience and the role of law enforcement are challenging the ways Latino agents think about their identities.
For example, Latinos make up about 8 percent of the federal workforce and about 18 percent of the population. However, Latinos make up 30 percent of ICE agents and nearly 50 percent of Border Patrol agents.
Why are Latinos choosing to enter into roles in agencies that have traditionally targeted almost half of the agents’ own ethnic backgrounds?
The new La(tinx) Migra — which refers to the Mexican-American assimilation movement that began during the 1950s — raises interesting questions on the motivations of Latinos to work in immigration law enforcement.
“As of 2015, Latinos make up 78 percent of the ICE workforce in El Paso,” Cortez tells KTSM.
“So we might say this is pretty representative of the broader community that ICE is charged with policing,” he says.
The fact that Latino representation among ICE agents in El Paso almost directly reflects the overall Latino population of the community being served challenges the identity of the agents.
Cortez says that Latinos ha historically had a very fraught relationship with immigration law enforcement, especially in cities along the border.
El Paso has a particularly significant role in that former U.S. Rep. and Border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes was the first Hispanic or Latino section chief in the region who also championed Border Patrol initiatives in the area.
“Reyes protected the community’s Latinx populations by moving Border Patrol out of the community and along the border rather than sweeping communities,” says Dr. Cortez.
But 9/11 and the current immigration crisis have blurred the way many perceive immigration, especially in the agents themselves, as immigration law enforcement is given authority to a militarized degree.
“We end up in situations you did in El Paso recently, where Border Patrol responds to a car wreck,” says Cortez, referring to the 10-person crash that killed seven in a human smuggling attempt last week in downtown El Paso.
“It presents a different law enforcement landscape in this area specifically,” he said.
Cortez spoke to many agents during the course of his fieldwork and found that many shared similar backgrounds and experiences with the immigrants they are charged with policing that creates a curious intersection of interests.
“They’re not all bought-in to the mission of the agency,” says Cortez of his findings, “many have different views about what the agency should be doing.”
The socioeconomic status of the region heavily influences the decision to join law enforcement for a person of color. In regions like El Paso, where the percentage of those with college degrees almost matches the rate of poverty — both about 20 percent — economic opportunities are scarce and survival is important.
Cortez’s research found motivating factors for the Latino agents he spoke with included economic self-interest, the pride that comes from having a “good job,” along with the security of benefits.
In other words, Latino law enforcement agents are enjoying their own version of the American dream.
But this is very complicated.
“They end up in the position where they are caught between two worlds: the ones the belong to and the communities they’re simultaneously charged with policing,” says Cortez.
Alex Keung is perhaps the most recognizable example of a law enforcement officer of color finding themselves caught between protecting the vulnerable community they come from and newfound culture they’re expected to fall into.
Keung is one of four officers charged in the killing of George Floyd on May 25 and is biracial.
Keung’s family recently told The New York Times Keung became a police officer to correct systemic injustices of people of color by law enforcement but ultimately acquiesced to the pressure of the comradery expected by his fellow officers.
Cortez’s research has found Latino immigration law enforcement are similarly faced with how to function in both worlds and improve conditions in each.
“Some of them really do recognize their own positionality within this,” says Cortez, “that means that the agency could potentially change or that there’s room for change.”
Cortez found that many agents feel stuck in their positions because of limited options outside the agency and little power to change the culture of the agency from within.
“Many of the people I interviewed during the course of this research are not oblivious to the fact that their agencies are looked upon poorly,” he says.
“There’s no avoiding the fact that people have competing views about the extent these agencies are beneficial to the community or not.”
In 2019, 65 percent of Americans reported feeling that the U.S. government is doing a bad job dealing with the number of refugees seeking asylum. Frustrations over the policies in D.C., trickle down to the agents on-site who have no option but to enforce the laws they swore to defend.
Cortez says the prevailing cultures of these agencies are difficult to push back against, especially when trying to police immigration in a bicultural and binational region.
“It’s important to point out that not everyone who opts into this line of work goes into it with negative perceptions of immigrants or bad intentions,” says Cortez.
There are many agents who wish to improve the conditions of undocumented migrants and relationships between migrants and law enforcement, but the policies are written from above not within.
“With respect to the community better understanding the men and women who do this work,” says Cortez, “there are men and women in these agencies that recognize a lot of the gray area in not just how they approach their job but recognizing this isn’t just an issue of law enforcement.”
“In many cases the people the agents are dealing with could be them or their families, barring just a couple different circumstances.”