Yazmin Juarez watched the sick children around her at the ICE detention facility in Dilley, Texas. Just days before, border patrol agents had detained Juarez, a Guatemalan national, along with her infant daughter as she crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande. Within days, her own baby, Mariee, would develop a cough and a fever. Though Juarez begged for medical attention, the most she got for her daughter was honey, some antibiotics, and a diagnosis of an ear infection by medical professionals at the facility. Juarez told the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties during a hearing this week that, after their release, she took her daughter to a pediatrician but it was too late. Within weeks, her daughter would die of an acute lung infection, months before her second birthday.
In recent months, stories of migrant deaths in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, government reports of the conditions in facilities, and misconduct by border patrol agents have caused a national outcry. As misconduct by federal law enforcement officials, all of whom are under the Department of Homeland Security, has become the focus of national attention, the question of who the agency recruits into its service has come into question.
According to the most recent data available from 2016 from the Department of Homeland Security, more than 50 percent of border patrol agents are of Hispanic descent. As of 2008, a decade ago but the most recent year for which Department of Justice (DOJ) data is available, 30 percent of ICE agents were of hispanic descent. (DHS and the DOJ use the word "Hispanic" in their demographic data, referring to anyone from Spain or Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America. The term "Latinx" refers to people from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries of Latin America.)
When contacted, DHS did not provide updated numbers about employment and referred Pacific Standard to ICE. As of press time, ICE had not responded to request for comment.
In a July 3rd op-ed in USA Today, University of Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Political Science David Cortez, who has researched why Latinx immigration officers join the ranks of border patrol and ICE in high numbers, urged those who do to look critically at the situation unfolding at the border. Over the course of 2015, he observed and interviewed over a hundred ICE agents in California, Texas, and Arizona, focusing on Latinx officers who had joined the agency. A quarter of the ICE agents he spoke with had previously been border patrol agents, he says.
According to Cortez's research, Latinx agents did, to some degree, identify closely with both the people seeking asylum at a port of entry and crossing illegally because of their shared heritage, language, and identity. But there were also limits to their empathy because financial comfort and economic stability were more important to their livelihood, he found.
Cortez has examined the relationship many of these Latinx officers have with their jobs. A number of enforcement agents have been forced to look at their own families and their own histories. One agent in Arizona told Cortez, "You know, I see my mother in these people. I see my grandfather," and spoke "about the difficulty that he has doing this job most days." Cortez says the agent added that the only thing that separates him from "these people" is circumstance.
Cortez has found that "a lot of these men and women are struggling on a daily basis to either rationalize what they do, or find ways to minimize the encounters they'll have with people that they might feel some kind of connection."
What he has observed, from his interviews, is that a number of agents will ask to be re-assigned or moved to other departments that deal with "criminals," and work in situations that felt more like they were dealing with "bad guys." Others, he says, tell him all they could do was apologize to some of the detainees they interacted with and let them know there was nothing they could do to help them.
The impact of the racial or social identity of law enforcement officers being similar to that of those they enforce has long been a studied topic in a sociological context. As Jennifer Gutsell, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brandeis University, told Wired about mirroring and seeing oneself in others, "The more similar you perceive the target subject to be to yourself, the more empathy you feel."
Josiah Heyman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas–El Paso, examined a similar group of 33 Mexican-American agents in Texas in the early part of the 21st century. One woman, an immigration officer, told him: "The hometown people are very proud I achieved such a good goal, a government job. ... When I do an apprehension, when I do a case, I'm asked to look the other way, asked to be more compassionate because I'm a Hispanic."
Cortez has found that many of the agents he spoke with drew a distinct line between their empathy and their careers. A Latino agent in Texas recently told Cortez he is aware that he might be on the wrong side of history, but the money was too good to quit. The cities where many of the agents come from in the Rio Grande Valley are some of the poorest in the state of Texas, a state in which nearly one in five people lives below the poverty line. The starting salary, in turn, under Customs and Border Protection is nearly $56,000, well above the region's median household income of $34,000.
The same Latino ICE agent who had told Cortez the "money was too good" to leave, said he would leave, Cortez relays, "when they start gassing people," drawing references to Nazi death camps.
Cortez followed up with a number of agents who had spoken to him openly during the Obama administration during the height of the 2014 Central American migrant crisis, and found many reticent to talk openly while working under the Trump administration.
"I think [one of the scariest] things is the agents were just following orders, that these agents just don't want to rock the boat so they don't sabotage their own economic self-interest, their own economic well-being," Cortez says of his recent conversations with some of the agents who would speak with him openly under this administration. "[It] is such a tragedy, given how much that parallels the story of most migrants who are willing to risk everything just to come here."